Late November symbolizes a season of abundance.
Supermarket fliers burst with colorful ads for Thanksgiving feasts, while shopping carts fill with plump turkeys, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pies. For the well-fed, anticipation runs high for a bountiful meal.
But this is also a season when food banks and charitable groups are gearing up to feed those whose cupboards are bare. This year, in particular, many groups find their phones ringing urgently in the wake of a flagging economy and job layoffs.
"The need has just skyrocketed for us for emergency services - food and shelter," says Julie Beau- regard of the Salvation Army in Boston. She calls the number of people asking for help "staggering." She adds, "Usually we see an increase in calls for assistance when we turn the calendar to December. This is the middle of November, and we're seeing it several weeks early, and at a high rate of people."
In Chicago, staff members at America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization, also see the need growing in nearly every region of the country. Yet donations of food are about the same compared to this time last year. "We're struggling to meet the increase in demand," says spokeswoman Susan Hofer.
Until last year, Ms. Hofer notes, steelworkers in Gary, Ind., contributed to a local food bank through their workplace giving program. Then those plants closed, and workers' donations stopped. Now their unemployment benefits are running out, forcing some to seek help from the same food bank they used to support.
Few people have tracked hunger in the United States more diligently than Loretta Schwartz-Nobel. Her latest book, "Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America" (HarperCollins, $24.95), has just been published.
When she began writing on the subject in the mid-1970s, almost no grass-roots organizations were fighting hunger. Today, more than 140,000 groups are devoted to providing food for the hungry. So are many corporations.
Despite these efforts, an estimated 36 million Americans - including 12 to 14 million children under the age of 12 - are hungry or "food insecure." Twenty years ago, that figure stood at 30 million.
Ms. Schwartz-Nobel blames part of the increase on budget cuts in federal programs since 1996. These include a $27 billion cut in food stamps.
In addition, she believes the issue is not a priority in Washington. Government leaders avoid the word "hunger," except when they are talking about third-world countries. They speak about poverty, she says, but not specifically about hunger among children.
She quotes Sen. Ted Kennedy as saying, "Hunger has been swept from the headlines but not from the streets."
In a culture of plenty, many Americans remain unaware that hunger exists. They worry instead about dieting and losing weight. As Schwartz-Nobel points out, "It's very hard for them to imagine that living down the street or next door there may be a family that's frantic for food."
When a family's food is running low, parents will often go hungry, Hofer finds. "Mom or Dad will fast for a day, so the children will have food."
To solve the problem, people must feel "a certain sense of outrage," Schwartz-Nobel says. "Hunger will continue until Americans are no longer willing for it to continue. Then leaders will bend to the will of the people."
Charities and food banks appreciate volunteers who are willing to serve Thanksgiving dinner at shelters. But hungry families will need assistance long after the last slice of turkey, the last spoonful of stuffing, and the last piece of pumpkin pie are gone.
Hofer's suggestion for an ideal gift? "Make a commitment to help until next Thanksgiving."