SOUTH DAKOTA — Everyone can relate to hunger. It’s a feeling we get every day when we need to fuel our bodies with food, one of the basic necessities for survival. When hunger strikes, many people are able to reach into the cupboard for a snack or have a pantry full of options for what to eat for their next meal. However, an estimated 49 million Americans — 16 million of whom are children — are food insecure, and they live within all 66 counties in South Dakota. One out of every eight people in South Dakota is food insecure: According to 2013 data from Feeding South Dakota, a hunger relief organization, 12.4 percent of the state’s population – around 105,100 people, with more than 40,000 children represented in that number — are food insecure, and it would take almost $52 million to meet the food needs within the state.
“We’ve got a long, long ways to go to closing that hunger gap,” Matt Gassen, CEO of Feeding South Dakota, said.
Now, food insecurity does not necessarily reflect a constant; it can come and go as circumstances change, but the fact that so many in the state must choose between paying for housing, for medical needs, for utilities, or for food — the basic necessities for survival — should make us uncomfortable. Those statistics represent hungry families, hungry children, hungry seniors: hungry neighbors in our communities.
“The face of hunger in South Dakota really does look just like … you and I,” Gassen said, describing that often, we try to assess a situation by what our eyes see, but all too often, that does not tell the real story. We may not know that the well-dressed person sitting next to us in church just lost his job, or that the senior couple walking past us at the park is struggling to make ends meet, or that the family playing at the park is behind on their car payment. They may not be considered “living in poverty” by the numbers, but foregoing a meal due to a lack of money or resources is food insecurity.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service published “Household Food Security in the United States in 2014,” an annual, national survey to monitor food security, and this data contributes to the effective operation of federal food assistance programs, private food assistance programs, and other initiatives to reduce food insecurity. The report found that food insecurity was down from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2014, which means that roughly the equivalent of 17.4 million households were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for all their members.
Gassen said that if he could remind everyone of one thing about hunger, it’s “That it’s real. That it’s among us,” he said. “Whether the community is large or small, hunger is there.”
And hunger, because it is a basic survival necessity, creates other issues when its need is not met. Imagine trying to focus through a school day on a Monday after not having a meal all weekend. Or imagine attempting to do your job on an empty stomach. Or imagine trying to stave off an illness or heal from an injury without enough to eat. Without adequate and nutritious food, our bodies cannot function as they ought, and the implications of having a hungry population spill over into higher healthcare costs, poor school performance, reduced productivity, and more issues that we as communities face.
Gassen said that Feeding South Dakota distributes more than 12 million pounds of food every year, providing more than 10 million meals, which seems like a significant number — and is! — but that to meet the hunger gap across the state, it would need to provide an additional 18 million meals annually.
Gassen pointed to the nearly 100 billion pounds of food estimated to go to waste each year in the country. Feeding South Dakota works to capture that food to feed hungry people, and he encouraged everyone to donate their “time and treasures” to help fight hunger.
“They’re only limited by their imaginations,” he said of what people can do to help. Providing support/food donations to local pantries in their communities always makes a difference, and more than that, it’s about recognizing that hunger is an issue, he said, adding that his goal every day is to make sure as many people as he can do not go to bed hungry. They may be hungry again tomorrow — and hunger relief organizations will continue to be there to provide food tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
“There’s a lot of problems in America — we’re dealing with lots of issues, but the crazy thing about it is, hunger’s one of those that we can solve,” Gassen said.