Steven V. Roberts

Steven V. Roberts

In case you have any gift exchanges or parties left on your calendar, here's a last-minute gift idea: food.

This country is caught in a damaging cycle. Hard times mean that hunger is rising while donations to food banks are dropping. The government helps somewhat, but private charity has to help, as well.

Several years ago, we decided to stop giving each other expensive holiday presents and instead donate that money to our local feeding programs, and since then, the need has only gotten worse. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 that the official poverty rate had jumped to 15.1% — 46.2 million people — but the Associated Press reported that twice that number were "scraping by on earnings that classify them as low-income." One key reason: Real household incomes dropped 6.4% from 2007, when the recession began, to 2010.

These trends have a direct impact on food security. The United States Conference of Mayors reported that of 29 cities surveyed, 25 saw a sharp increase in requests for help. As a result, many feeding agencies are reducing quantities or limiting visits; some are even turning needy families away.

Behind these statistics are real faces, real families, real communities. Here's a brief sampling of reports from around the country:

Texas: At Fort Hood, military spouses stayed up past midnight to register for free Thanksgiving turkeys. The 450 slots were filled in an hour, reports The Washington Post. "It's like a hidden world," said Army wife Amy King, who was lining up for free groceries at another post. "We have to struggle like everybody else does."

New York: In a school district west of Rochester, laid-off Kodak and Xerox managers registered their kids for subsidized school lunches for the first time. Debbi Beauvais, who supervised the program, told The New York Times: "Parents signing up children say, 'I never thought a program like this would apply to me and my kids.'"

Idaho: Walmart stores have seen an "enormous spike" in the number of consumers shopping at midnight on the first day of every month, when their food stamp accounts get replenished. James Dougherty told NBC News that toward the end of the month, when their stamps run out, his family subsists mainly on rice. So they join the ravenous crowds when they can shop again. "It's chaotic, I mean, it really is," he says. "If you're claustrophobic, don't go into an Idaho grocery store on the first."

Pennsylvania: "We're seeing a lot of first-time users," said Carey Morgan, a hunger advocate in the wealthy suburbs north of Philadelphia, to phillyburbs.com. "They may have been receiving a six-figure salary a few years ago, (but) everyone is one disaster away. It could be a layoff, medical emergency, mortgage payment. It's so easy to fall into the cycle of poverty."

Nebraska: One out of 6 kids under 18 in Lincoln County was at-risk for hunger, reported the North Platte Telegraph. Hunger is often an invisible problem, said Brian Barks of the Heartland Food Bank: Neighbors often don't know that "someone down the street just lost a job and is having to decide between paying bills and buying food."

Feeding people is not just a question of charity; it's in the national interest. Food aid is spent immediately, so it directly stimulates the economy and generates income for store owners, truckers and producers. And it saves money in the long run by promoting healthier children.

A lengthy report in the Kansas City Star concluded: "The fallout when children don't get the nutrition they need can create a lifetime of troubles: delayed speech or motor skills in early childhood, social ills in elementary school, severe academic woes in high school. Some become dropouts. All because, experts say, food-insecure children are often deprived of the proper nutrients at a time when their brains and bodies are going through the most essential growth."

"It's quite cheap to feed children, and very expensive to hospitalize them and give them special education programs and so on," said Deborah Frank, an expert in childhood hunger. "It's just dumb, to put it mildly."

So write a check to your local food bank. Kids get smarter, the economy gets better, and you don't have to stress out over finding the perfect gift. After all, no one returns a turkey because it's the wrong size.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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