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Mark holiday with pledge to reduce hunger | Editorial

Mark holiday with pledge to reduce hunger | Editorial

As many Floridians gather for a bountiful Thanksgiving, they should remember the less fortunate who often go hungry.

Across South Florida, families have been busily planning for Thanksgiving.

Travel or stay home? Roast a big turkey or downsize to chicken or ham? Or make reservations instead?

For many local families, however, the food on Thursday’s table will be an act of generosity, and for weeks, it has been much in evidence. Churches, community food pantries and other organizations work to assemble and distribute turkey dinner boxes, or host congregate meals.

For many, the bounty of giving will carry through Christmas. But with a new year, the struggle begins anew, often in private. Parents will skip meals so their kids will have enough. Seniors will go hungry because they can’t afford both groceries and medicine. Low-income people will buy their food at higher-priced convenience stores because there’s no grocery store within reach. Children will eagerly climb onto school buses, knowing free school breakfasts and lunches provide most of the calories they get in a day.

In an era where some politicians, including the new speaker of the U.S. House, Rep. Mike Johnson, believe the nation spends too much feeding the hungry, the many signs of desperation should not be ignored.

Counting the hungry

Every year, more than 700,000 South Floridians experience what the U.S. calls “food insecurity.” For many, that euphemism means “hungry.” Not all the time, and not for everyone in a given household; in fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture argues that “hunger” is a subjective term, whereas food insecurity includes people who don’t have reliable access to healthy, adequate food and are likely to suffer as a result.

They may never report not getting enough to eat, but might suffer health-related conditions, including diabetes or some types of cancer, because they can’t afford the right kind of diet.

That group also clearly includes people who are undeniably hungry. In about one-third of those households, some members of a household — such as parents — will skip meals so children or other vulnerable family members can have enough. And as much as it hurts to admit it, local children, probably thousands of them, don’t get enough to eat. In the most severe cases, at least one child has gone without food for an entire day, most often in summer when school’s out.

Hunger pangs persist

Many Americans believe those needs are covered under the federal food-stamp program. Not so, not always. Though Florida has more than 3 million participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP,  those benefits don’t always cover enough for everyone in a household.

Almost all these Floridians trace their privation to one root cause: Financial stress. Astoundingly, that’s true even though roughly a third of households experiencing food insecurity across Florida now report incomes above the official food-stamp qualification line. That supports something many social service agencies are also reporting: Housing costs and food prices are rising so quickly that even middle-income workers can’t always keep up.

There’s good reason to believe that poverty-related hunger worsened during the COVID epidemic. Though most official federal measures of food insecurity are current only through 2021, there’s other evidence to consider: The number of Floridians applying for food stamps has increased sharply.

One more factor has worsened, thanks to high gas prices and rocketing car prices: The prevalence across South Florida of so-called “food deserts” where large numbers of residents do not own cars but live more than a half mile from the nearest grocery. That makes it much more difficult to eat and provide nutritious meals.

Federal aid drying up

Nonprofits work to close this gap. But they know that holiday generosity is likely to dwindle by January. That forces them to calculate how much aid they must hold back in reserve, particularly for the coming summer when much of the COVID-era funding goes away.

Here’s what’s hardest to believe: There are still elected officials in this country who, confronted with the extent of food insecurity in the United States, don’t take it seriously. That includes far too many members of Congress, which let the legislation that funds food stamps briefly expire before re-authorizing it this week for one more scant year. There will be slight increases in SNAP benefits for most recipients, but legislation passed earlier this year increases work requirements in ways that will hit some vulnerable families hard.

Worse, the newly-elected Speaker of the U.S. House, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., is a longtime proponent of slashing federal food aid, calling SNAP “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program” despite the number of families already coping with the gnawing pangs of hunger.

It’s a lot to think about in a season devoted to the celebration of bounty.

So here’s our hope: As families gather ’round and talk about what they are most grateful for, that they strengthen their resolve that access to adequate, nutritious food is a fundamental right for everyone, and a benchmark they will hold their elected representatives responsible for meeting.

They should yearn for a day when no person in this great nation — particularly not children — goes to bed hungry.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, editorial writer Martin Dyckman and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at letters@sun-sentinel.com.

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