The hunger in America's midst

National Hunger Awareness Day, being observed Thursday by a coalition of anti-hunger organizations, raises the issue of why more Americans are not aware that hunger is a serious problem facing children and families across the United States.

While America doesn't have the kind of starvation that plagues victims of war and famine overseas and makes for dramatic footage on the evening news, the evidence of significant hunger in our midst could not be more pervasive and accessible.

If you live or work in a neighborhood where children go to school, and that covers most of us, free and reduced-price meals from the federal government's school lunch and school breakfast programs are probably being served to some of the program's more than 14 million beneficiaries.

If you live in a town with grocery stores, you are likely to find food stamps being used by some of the more than 10 million households that depend on them to purchase critical sources of nutrition.

If you are like 90 percent of Americans, you live within less than an hour's drive of one of the 185 massive food banks that supply more than 65,000 soup kitchens that feed almost 20 million Americans.

Thirty-four million Americans living below the poverty line is a not a new phenomenon. Indeed it has been the one relentlessly consistent staple of American economic life, resisting the technology boom, fluctuations in the stock market, and even low unemployment rates.

Hunger is not hidden in America. But neither, in a nation of abundance - of natural resources, wealth, and opportunity - is it top of mind for voters, philanthropists, or many citizens.

Indeed the disparity of hunger in a land of plenty creates a dissonance that is difficult to accept. This disparity can also create a sense of guilt often best coped with by avoiding it.

Unlike some efforts that fall victim to their own bureaucracy, federal nutrition programs and private assistance largely work as they are designed to and have succeeded in measurably reducing the number of children and families who suffer from hunger. They have made Americans healthier and more productive, and the nation stronger as a result. This is why they have long enjoyed bipartisan support.

But they still don't reach everyone who needs them, and there are still large gaps in coverage, as when schools are closed in the summer.

Because of hunger, there are children in America not growing as they should be. They are underheight, underweight, and often neurologically and developmentally delayed or impaired. There is literally less to them than there should be. Of everyone who is hungry in America, children are most vulnerable and are most at risk.

There are two kinds of poverty in America: There are those who don't have and those who don't know. The majority of Americans are fortunate not to be in the category of those who don't have. Too many have been willing to remain in the category of those who don't know. Men and women of conscience must do more than accept or reject allegations about the conditions of the society in which they live. They must find out for themselves.

Those who do will learn that hunger is a serious but solvable problem. It is only as invisible as Americans allow it to be.

Bill Shore is executive director of Share Our Strength, an antihunger organization, and author of 'The Light of Conscience: How a Simple Act Can Change Your Life.'

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