May all feast in America

The country needs to pull together to fill food banks that are facing a critical shortage.

Around the Thanksgiving table, friends and family will thank the cook for perfectly parsleyed potatoes or glorious gravy ("How did you do that"?). But for those dining on donations from a food bank, gratitude will be especially meaningful – if, that is, there's enough food.

"There simply may be no food for many families when the rest of the nation gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving and religious holidays," said Vicki Escarra last week. Ms. Escarra is president of America's Second Harvest, a national food-bank network and the country's largest domestic hunger-relief charity. The group's 200-plus food banks report "critical shortages."

In the rush to feast and merriment during the holidays, it's easy to overlook the basic needs of many Americans. Last week, the US Department of Agriculture reported that 35.5 million people in the United States were hungry or on the verge of hunger in 2006 – more than a third of them children. That's more than 1 in 10 residents in this bountiful country and, sadly, an increase of 400,000 from the year before.

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In the same week, Second Harvest released a state-by-state look at child hunger. Analyzing data from the Census Bureau, it found that 18 percent of children 18 years old or younger were hungry or at risk of hunger from 2003 to 2005. Twelve states had rates of 20 percent or above (including cornucopias California, Texas, and Iowa).

Nearly 15 million children receive free school lunches. And local churches, civic groups, and food banks fill the backpacks of about 50,000 children with food to take home on Fridays. But holiday vacations can interrupt this care.

Two trends have merged to produce Escarra's sober assessment:

Higher costs. Rising oil prices are eating into food transport budgets of local charities. Low-income people struggle with higher energy, housing, and health costs, which increases demand for food aid. A food bank in Lexington, Ky., describes a typical recipient as female, with a family of three. If working, she earns about $6 an hour.

Food costs more. The current annual inflation rate of 4.2 percent is the highest since 1990. The federal Food Stamp program, the first line of defense against hunger, has not kept up with inflation.

Less surplus food. A strong agricultural economy means the federal government has less need to buy up surplus products, and less surplus to pass on to food banks. The government's support for food banks is down 70 percent over the past three years (as measured by its dollar value).

Poverty underlies hunger. But even as the country searches for ways to tackle that longstanding challenge, Americans can do a better job of meeting the immediate needs of the hungry.

The food industry can better coordinate with groups that fight hunger. (A labeling error recently prompted one company to send its orange juice to Second Harvest.)

Congress can ensure that the part of the farm bill that increases aid for food stamps and nutrition survives the legislative wrangle.

And now, when charities are making an extra effort to raise funds and organize canned food drives, individuals can give generously from their cupboards and checkbooks.

This Thanksgiving, and every day, all of America must work to disprove Escarra's forecast.

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