Hunger at the Holidays

Assortment of canned and dried foods
Photo by fabrikasimf on Freepik.

Hunger knows no season, and yet there’s something especially heart-rending about the reality of human hunger during the holiday season. If you are fortunate enough to have plenty of food on your table, it can be hard to imagine the toll that a daily lack of food takes on what’s supposed to be a season filled with joy. And yet, we all know that there are many people who want for nourishing food.

Learn about food insecurity in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, being food insecure means that, “at times during the year, a household is uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” Under this definition fall those households that have low food security and those with very low food security. In 2018, about 11% of US households were food insecure at some point during the year. Among those households with children under the age of 18, approximately 7% experienced food insecurity that year. That’s 11 million children and teens (1 in 7) for whom a lack of food and hunger are not unfamiliar circumstances. School-aged children whose families qualify can get school lunches for free or reduced cost, but during the holiday vacation time, those meals go away.

While for years the number of hungry children in the US has been dropping due to hunger relief efforts and an improving economy, this year, because of the coronavirus, 1 in 4 children are likely to be food insecure, according to an analysis by Feeding America.  The combination of school closures earlier in the year and high unemployment have plunged more families into food insecurity.   

What happens when food dollars are scarce?

Grocery shopping with a very tight budget can be trying. The idea of getting the most filling meal for the least money is a reality for people with food insecurity. Public assistance only goes so far, so thinking strategically is important: the goal is to find nutrient-dense foods that also are satiating. If you find yourself either shopping for your own family or wanting to help a struggling family with their shopping, consider these items that deliver good nutritional value and have “staying power” (usually due to the presence of protein, fiber and fat or some combination of those):

  • Eggs
  • Old-fashioned or quick oats (not instant or sweetened) 
  • Rice
  • Small bananas (more servings per pound!)
  • Bagged oranges and apples
  • Dried or canned beans (no-added-salt versions preferable)
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Seasonal fruit/vegetables on special sale
  • Canned vegetables (no-added-salt versions preferable)
  • Canned fruit (packed in juice preferable)
  • Lentils
  • Frozen vegetables (plain)
  • Peanut butter
  • Whole grain bread
  • Milk
  • Canned tuna, sardines
  • Whole chicken or chicken legs/bone-in thighs
  • Ground turkey

Oh, and if you’re looking to see which of the choices delivers the most nutritional bang for your buck, check the Guiding Stars information on the shelf tag, package or signage. One star=good nutrition, two stars=better, and three stars=best nutrient value. The Guiding Stars system helps no matter what your food budget is.

What’s the most impactful way to help?

If you’re looking to help, making the most of seasonal hunger relief efforts is crucial (see our previous post on this topic). Donating money to hunger relief organizations is a most welcome way to do your part. Most hunger relief agencies can purchase more food with your dollars than they can obtain through food donations/food drives. Here are two good options to consider if you’re helping with your checkbook:

Support Share Our Strength.

This nonprofit organization aims to end poverty and hunger in the U.S. and abroad. In includes a variety of programs, such as No Kid Hungry, Cooking Matters, disaster relief, and other programs.

Support your local food bank.

Contributing financially to your local food bank is one of the best ways to see your dollar go far—and in your community. Donating money is really the best way to go, unless your local food bank has requested some other specific type of assistance. Check your local food bank’s website for information (find your local food bank here). Otherwise, consider donating money. This year many food pantries and food banks have had to purchase more food because food drives and food donations have dropped off due to the pandemic (and volunteers to sort and pack the food have dwindled due to health and safety reasons). 

What are other great ways to help?

Eat at a Dine for No Kid Hungry restaurant.

Many restaurants of all types participate in this fundraising opportunity, which, for example, may involve a portion of your total dining check or profits from the sale of a certain menu item being donated to No Kid Hungry. Check with the restaurant ahead of time, as not all run the promotion or donations year ‘round. 

Host a fundraiser for Feeding America.

Feeding America is the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, helping get food from farmers, manufacturers and retailers to 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs around the country. Feeding America guides you through setting up a personal fundraiser, giving you ideas, tools and encouragement. You could also choose to do your fundraiser through Facebook or stream a live charity event. Lots of options!

Volunteer for Cooking Matters.

Find and contact a Cooking Matters partner in your area and take the online training, and then help as a course assistant, or if you have experience as a cook, chef or nutrition professional, you may volunteer as a course instructor or store tour leader.

Advocate for Meals on Wheels America.

As the demand for meal delivery has risen substantially this year, speaking up for senior citizens who are home-bound, and depend on the delivery of meals to their doors is vital. Your support can be as easy as emailing or calling your congressperson and asking him or her to support additional funding for the program. Of course, donating to the cause is always welcome, too.