Hunger Heros feeding people experiencing food insecurity.

Neighbors In Need: Combating Food Insecurity

How we can help the hungry in 2024
While charitable giving is something we often think about around the holidays, people have needs all year round. Food insecurity is an ongoing problem in the United States. Food insecurity is a broad term that includes more than just a lack of food; the USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” People who are subsisting on nutrient poor food to stave off hunger would also fall into this category. This is a national crisis, and Long Island is not exempt.
According to Long Island Cares, a local organization dedicated to fighting food insecurity, more than 230,000 Long Islanders are food insecure, and of that number, 65,000 are children and 26,000 are seniors. Approximately 40 percent of food-insecure Long Island households are above the poverty level but don’t make enough to keep up with the high cost of living in Nassau and Suffolk counties, making them ineligible for nutrition assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Food-insecure children are more likely than their peers to experience behavioral issues, reduced ability to learn social skills, and impaired learning. The health effects of hunger range from lack of stamina and increased illness – which increases missed work time – to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Seniors who are hungry experience depression and anxiety. They are also at increased risk for illness, disease, and even premature death.

Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry, recently addressed the crisis of food insecurity.

QWhat causes food insecurity?
There are many factors that can push a family into food insecurity: the rising cost of groceries due to inflation, low wages or income lost during the pandemic, food benefit programs and social assistance that were cut back. The latest data from the USDA tells us all these factors are putting more kids at risk of hunger. In 2022 alone, we saw the number of families facing food insecurity jump 40 percent.

QWho are the most vulnerable?
Food insecurity is especially pronounced among families with children. The problem spans rural and urban communities alike, and even families that once considered themselves economically secure are now facing pressure. We are especially concerned that families currently relying on food assistance programs to feed their kids are facing cuts to those benefits. For the first time in 25 years, Congress has failed to provide the dollars needed to fully fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal nutrition program designed specifically to help pregnant women and new moms afford essentials like formula, milk and fresh produce. Due to higher-than-expected participation and the rising cost of food, nearly 124,000 New Yorkers across the state could lose critical nutrition assistance. This funding shortfall would be devastating for families across our state being that WIC not only helps parents make ends meet, but also supports the health and development of infants and young children. Data shows WIC dramatically improves maternal, infant and child health and development, while also helping participants improve their diets by purchasing healthier foods.

QWhat impact did the
recent bout of inflation have on food insecurity?
Inflation has made a bad situation worse. Families are now finding it harder to afford groceries and put food on the table. According to our 2023 poll of New York families, nearly 3 in 4 New Yorkers reported it harder to afford groceries this year than last. Forty percent of those we surveyed in New York shared that they were forced to decide between paying for food or other costs like rent, utilities, or gas at one point or another this calendar year.

QLooking forward to 2024, how is the outlook for people who are food insecure?
Hunger, specifically among children, is on the rise across the country, and we know that New York follows the national trend. Across the country, nearly 1 in 5 kids could face food insecurity. That’s up from 1 in 8 the prior year. Despite rising hunger, in 2023 we saw programs that helped families through the pandemic lapse, and fewer dollars flowing every month to the families in greatest need. We need 2024 to be different. Whether it’s the Farm Bill in Washington or standing up the Summer EBT food assistance program here in New York, we need urgency from our elected officials. We know what works. Expanding those efforts shouldn’t be a question but a moral imperative.

QWhat are some ways to combat food insecurity, both short and long term?
Nine in 10 New Yorkers want their elected officials to work on a bipartisan basis to do more to eliminate childhood hunger. There’s a big opportunity right in front of us. Summer EBT benefits could bring more than $200 million in new federal aid for meals, keeping kids healthy while also supporting businesses across the state as families spend those dollars. Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (Summer EBT) would be a game-changer for kids in what is often the hungriest season of the year. We have options here, but we need to take immediate action if we want to make the necessary impact.

QWhat are your recommendations for public policy to reduce/eliminate food insecurity?
Providing families with direct assistance to pay for groceries, and providing kids with no-cost meals at schools and other community sites are proven ways to fight hunger. But right now, the programs that help feed kids and families are under attack. Your voices matter. Reach out to your local, state and federal elected officials and urge them to prioritize programs that focus on hunger and the well-being of kids. We need to not only protect programs like SNAP and no-cost school meals, but expand them. Lots of organizations like ours are working together to make this happen, and whether it’s volunteering or donating, you can help us drive awareness of these programs.

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