Update: This story was originally published on November 11, 2016. On December 22, 2018, after Congress failed to come to an agreement to fund the government, the government partially shut down. As a result of the ongoing shutdown, more than 800,000 federal employees are either working without pay or being forced to take unpaid leave. In their absence, the critical work of “non-essential” government agencies has been all but halted.
Among them is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. According to Vox, SNAP is funded throughout the end of February, but considering that Trump has threatened to drag the government shutdown on for “years,” the more than 38 million Americans who rely on SNAP to eat every day are at serious risk of going hungry. Hunger relief charities will step in to fill the gap, and they need our support.
46.5 million Americans — more than the entire populations of New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois combined — don’t have enough food to eat. In the coming years, that number is only going to get bigger, unless people step in to help in a big way. Which people? Primarily those of us who obsessively care about restaurants. Yeah, that means you.
Back in 2008, the Great Recession fundamentally changed the face of hunger. Middle-class Americans struggled to put food on the table as personal wealth dwindled dramatically, homes were foreclosed upon at historically high rates, and millions of jobs across the country were lost, many of them permanently. All these factors coalesced to birth a new generation of food insecure people — laid-off professionals, teachers, former banking industry employees — from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Seven years later, the economy has improved. The stock market is no longer in freefall, the unemployment rate has declined, and many people have recouped their recession losses. Still, despite all this progress, plenty of people across the country were almost entirely left out of the national economic recovery. In January, an analysis found that nearly 93 percent of counties across the United States had still not fully recovered from the recession. Last year, 12.7 percent of U.S. households contended with food insecurity, only a 1.8 percent decline from the peak of the recession.
And now, in the immediate aftermath of this week’s election, it’s impossible to know how a Donald Trump presidency will impact the millions of hungry people across the country. Many economists postulate that Trump’s economic proposals will only expand the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We now have a president-elect that wants to make the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps) more vulnerable to budget cuts, a move supported by a majority of the Republican-dominated Congress.
Most troubling, though, is Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare might not seem like it’s about hunger, but the program is intimately connected to who gets to eat in America. In 2015, over 66 percent of food bank patrons were forced to choose between purchasing their essential medications and buying enough food to eat. The loss of affordable health insurance, especially in an era when healthcare costs are on the rise, will no doubt result in longer lines at food pantries across the country. At present, there is no real reason to be optimistic that food insecurity will improve under a Trump administration.
Now that the election is over, many of us are licking our wounds while trying to figure out what to do next. With regard to hunger, the answer is beyond simple: give your money to food banks. We may not be able to do anything about who sits in the Oval Office — at least not right now — but we can ensure that our neighbors don’t go hungry before Trump’s proposed policies ever come to fruition.
Food banks are uniquely qualified to address America’s hunger crisis. They’ve long accomplished the boots-on-the-ground work, despite years of crippling cuts to food assistance programs on both a state-by-state and national level. Food banks receive federal funding and corporate gifts, but donations from individuals make up the majority of the budget used to feed people at soup kitchens, food pantries, and meal programs across the country.
These food banks have finely honed the science of fighting hunger, deftly targeting those most in need. They’ve created programs to ensure that senior citizens can access nutritionally-sound meals that keep them both satiated and help prevent illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Feeding America’s BackPack program distributes nearly half a million parcels of shelf-stable, easy-to-prepare snacks and meals to children that keep them fed on the weekends, when school meal programs aren’t accessible.
It isn’t as simple as just picking up a few cans of food and dropping them off at a pantry. You have to give money — as much as you can afford, and frequently. Because food banks buy in bulk, they wield a great deal more purchasing power than an individual person at a grocery store. Depending on your location, food banks can provide between two to eight meals to people in need with a single dollar, the same amount of money you’d spend on two cans of beans.
With individual donations, food banks can pair your 10 or 15 bucks with corporate grants, federal aid dollars, and negotiated pricing on food items to squeeze the most out of every single dollar. Canned goods can’t purchase the trucks, gasoline, and manpower required to pack and ship the thousands of pounds of food distributed each month, but cash can. When you give money, you maximize your impact.
Plenty of people view donating to food banks (or any other charity) as a way to dispose of their unwanted garbage. Donating the decades-old canned goods from your pantry isn’t just a dick move that lacks respect for the people you’re supposedly trying to help, it also costs food banks — who are responsible for sorting and disposing of items they can’t use — time and money. These "gifts" can also have negative unintended effects, like when food bank patrons receive food that is moldy, infested with worms, or riddled with bacteria.
As people with a vested interest in food culture, it’s important to balance our appetites for pricey food and coveted restaurant reservations with an equally passionate commitment to food justice. In recent years, the economic outlook has stabilized enough, at least for now, for us to drop $15 on a single cocktail or $300 at a fancy special occasion dinner. If you don’t bat an eye at those dollar amounts, it should be easy to toss a couple of bucks every month in the direction of hunger relief charities.
We also have to consider our own role in the hunger crisis. For better or worse, foodie culture is now popular culture, and that’s come with a whole lot of negative unintended consequences. Restaurants have played a huge role in the gentrification of countless neighborhoods, forcing families and long-established small businesses alike out of their homes as the hip, moneyed crowds moved into Bushwick, Austin, Nashville, and Charleston. Sometimes, those in poverty live just steps away from the county’s buzziest restaurants. And foods that were once cheap — tacos, hot chicken, and collard greens — have transformed into luxury items, driving up their price.
Put simply, our increased interest in food has, in some ways, made it harder for some people to get enough to eat. It’s our responsibility to help close the gap. Thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now ridiculously easy to give money to a food bank that serves your local community. Most accept online donations, and many offer the ability to set up a recurring donation automatically drafted from your bank account or credit card every month. If you want to further maximize your impact, many corporate employers offer charitable donation matching (up to a percentage) that doesn’t cost you a dime.
This time of year, just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, is when hunger generally comes into focus, evidenced by the canned food drives and turkey giveaways that will crop up over the coming weeks. Donations to food banks peak in November and December, and they are necessary, but hunger is a year-round problem that requires constant attention.
But you don’t have to schlep boxes from the grocery store or set up a canned food drive. Just figure out how much you spend at restaurants, take a percentage you can comfortably afford, and give.