Does America Have a Hunger Crisis? A Thanksgiving FAQ

Twenty percent of Americans say they can't always afford the food they need. But, thankfully, much fewer truly go hungry.
Customers waiting in line at a food pantry (Reuters)

Thanksgiving is the time of year when soup kitchens swell with volunteers and food pantries go into overdrive, dolling out turkeys en mass to the needy. Thanks to our fondness for holiday charity, it's may well be one of the days when the fewest Americans go without a meal.

But how bad is this country's hunger problem the other 364 days of the year? Just in case the season has you wondering, here's a holiday FAQ to answer your questions.  

We're such a rich nation. How many Americans could possibly go hungry?

Well, more than before the recession, for sure, but thankfully fewer than some headlines might make you think. It's safe to say that in about 6 out of every 100 homes, someone is forced to go without food during the year. 

Tens of millions of Americans have at least a bit of trouble affording meals. In September, for instance, 20 percent of adults told Gallup that at some time in the past year, they didn't have enough money to buy the food their family needed. 

And, as you might suspect, that's pretty sad by International standards. According to Pew, Americans are far more likely to say they have trouble affording food than citizens of most other rich nations. We're more like Indonesia in that respect than Germany or Britain.    

But having difficulty purchasing food isn't quite the same as going hungry, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes apparent in its annual Report on Household Food Security.

First, the big picture: hunger rates jumped after the recession, and have yet to come down. In 2012, 14.5 percent of households suffered from some form of food "insecurity," which essentially means they had to worry about putting dinner on the table, might not have been able to afford a balanced diet, but weren't necessarily skimping on meals. The upshot: almost 49 million adults and children couldn't always count on where their next bite was coming from.    

Thankfully, a much smaller subset of those people actually experienced serious hunger. According to the USDA, only 5.7 percent of households dealt with "very low food security" at some point during the year, which means someone in the home was actually skipping meals or cutting portion sizes. In total, some 17 million Americans, including 8.2 million children, lived in those homes. 

Wait, are there really 8.2 million hungry children in this country? That's basically the population of New York City. 

Well, it's not quite that bad. In most of these households, parents choose to skip meals instead of their children. (To be clear, when I say, not "that bad," I'm speaking very relatively. Of course nobody should have to forgo dinner so their kid can eat.). Ultimately, kids went hungry in just 1.2 percent U.S. homes last year. That comes out to 977,000 Americans under 18. Which is still pretty heart wrenching, if you think about it—it'd still be enough hungry kids to fill a city the size of San Jose. But at least it's not millions.   


So are these families starving every day?

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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