Here's a New Year's resolution that can be summed up in two words: Fight hunger.
The economic crisis is crushing the ability of many parents to feed their children. Donations to anti-hunger programs surged during the holiday season, but the demand continues to outstrip the supply. Many of the needy families have never had to rely on charity before in their lives.
"Food has been going out just about as fast as it is coming in," Rhonda Chafin, director of a food bank in northeastern Tennessee, told the Bristol Herald Courier. "This year is different. It's not just those who live in poverty. This year, it's our neighbor."
She's right. This fall, 31.5 million Americans qualified for federal assistance through the food-stamp program (now renamed SNAP). That's the largest number in history, breaking the record set in November 2005 after three devastating hurricanes.
A national survey of 160 food banks by Feeding America reported a 30 percent increase in demand over the last year. Three of four banks said they had to reduce each family's allotment so no one would be turned away.
And the demand for food is only going to increase. Claims for jobless benefits hit 586,000 during the week ending just before Christmas the highest weekly total in 26 years. Consumer spending and family income both plummeted in November.
"I think we are only seeing the beginning of it," a food-bank official in northeast Iowa told Feeding America. "It could be a hard winter." Another in the Pacific Northwest added, "We feel we haven't seen the bottom yet of the economic downturn, and while giving is up right now, we're very concerned about what will come several months down the road."
Part of this is a federal problem. Barack Obama, whose mother briefly received food stamps, has talked about using his stimulus package to boost food aid, and that makes sense. Food costs jumped more than 6 percent for the year ending in October, and benefits have not caught up. The Washington Post reports that for a family of four, the current monthly food-stamp allotment, $588, falls $64 short of providing an adequate diet.
Moreover, food stamps as opposed to construction projects produce an immediate injection of ready cash. Economist Mark Zandi told the Post that every food-stamp dollar generates $1.73 in economic activity, exactly the sort of kick-start the economy needs.
Hunger is not just a public problem; it's a private one. Obviously, many families have to reduce their charitable giving this year, which means that those of us who still have the means should try to increase our donations.
Michelle Obama sent an e-mail to her husband's vast network of supporters, urging them to contribute "to your local food bank." We directed most of our own holiday giving this year to feeding programs, and were pleased to receive a number of cards from friends saying they had done the same thing.
But just plug the words "food" and "hunger" into your Internet search engine, and you quickly realize that holiday gifts alone won't solve the problem. Fighting hunger will take a yearlong effort.
In western Pennsylvania, feeding programs are running so low on supplies that they have to divert operating funds to buy food. Local hunters are helping by donating deer meat, but as Marlene Kozak, director of a local food bank, says, "You never solve the problem. Everybody has to eat three times a day."
In Milwaukee, Wis., food donations from local grocers and wholesalers are down sharply, and Bonnie Bellehumeur, president of a group that collects those donations, says, "We haven't seen this low a food supply in 10 years."
In Colorado Springs, Colo., Catholic Charities is short on baby food, diapers and formula. "Donations have been consistent with previous years, but they're not enough they go out as quickly as they come in," says spokeswoman Rochelle Schlortt. "All charities are concerned everybody is competing for a limited amount of dollars."
Some people have stepped up big time. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave an emergency grant of $1.4 million to feeding programs in the Pacific Northwest. Yoga teachers in Connecticut have started a national movement, trading a free class for a bag of food. High-school students in Riverton, Utah, raised $82,000 for charity through 19 days of caroling and car washes.
Yes, there is a hard winter ahead. Most of us cannot create jobs for needy families. But we can help feed their kids.