(Former Arkansas state senator John Brown is president of the Windgate Charitable Foundation. A version of this post originally appeared as a special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)
Fifty million people in the U.S., and one in four children, don't know where their next meal is coming from, despite our country having the means to provide nutritious, affordable food for all Americans.
Last fall at the Conference of Southwest Foundations' annual meeting, my colleagues and I watched clips from A Place at the Table, a documentary that examines the many issues hunger causes and provides insight into what life is like for the millions of people in America who suffer from it. Most of the people featured in the film were working but just did not make enough money to put food on the table for the entire month. Many of them did not qualify for food stamps or bridge cards.
We all left the conference with a new perspective and appreciation of the gravity of the hunger problem in America. It was a wake-up call.
The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, a statewide alliance focused on hunger relief, education and advocacy, estimates that on any given night more than 560,000 of our fellow Arkansans will go to bed with an empty, gnawing ache in their bellies. One in six of our neighbors cannot put food on the table for their family. It isn't because we don't have enough food. The cause is poverty.
Nineteen percent of Arkansans live below the poverty line and often don't have the money to buy milk and bread, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey. Out of the millions of Americans who are food-insecure, a lot of them are right here in the Natural State. In fact, Arkansas is right at the top of the USDA's list of states with the most food-insecure households.
Hunger is a serious economic, social, and cultural threat -- to communities here in Arkansas as well as across the nation. Indeed, according to a 2011 report from the Center for American Progress and Brandeis University, "hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health-care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed."
The effects of hunger on children's health and educational achievement are especially alarming. Research conducted by Children's HealthWatch and reported on by Feeding America shows that food-insecure children are 90 percent more likely than kids from food-secure homes to have their overall health reported as "fair/poor" rather than "excellent/ good." And a 2012 survey of public school teachers by Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign shows hungry students struggle with poor academic performance, behavior problems, and health issues.
The good news is that the problem can be solved if we, as Americans, agree that making healthy food available and affordable for all is in our best interests.
I recently toured the Arkansas Foodbank with a group of grantmakers from private foundations across the Southwest to learn more about how the agency is addressing the problem of hunger in the state. The foodbank is a member of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which was formed almost ten years ago with the support, encouragement, and financial assistance of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Today it provides more than twenty million pounds of food annually to help feed people in need. Collaboration has helped the alliance make great strides in the fight against hunger in Arkansas and is something the two hundred and forty members of the Conference of Southwest Foundations see as key to eliminating food insecurity in the region.
A lot of people think that it's up to government to fix big problems -- and, yes, philanthropic and government assistance are part of the solution to ending hunger in America. But they're not enough. The fact is, eliminating something as monumental as hunger -- in Arkansas and nationwide -- will require a commitment by each and every one of us to come together to make sure that every family is able to feed itself and no child ever goes hungry.
-- John Brown