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America's hunger crisis is getting worse

One year after Congress slashed funding for food stamps, food pantries and soup kitchens are reporting food shortages at an alarming rate.
A child accompanies his grandmother choosing free groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City on Dec. 11, 2013 in New York City. (John Moore/Getty)
A child accompanies his grandmother choosing free groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City on Dec. 11, 2013 in New York City.

A little over a year ago, something happened that our nation’s leaders promised would not: our country’s first line of defense against hunger, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), was slashed. Every one of the more than 47 million Americans who rely on SNAP — including nearly 1.9 million here in New York City – saw their food budgets reduced.

The cuts were legislated by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, as a trade-off to pay for a six-cents-per-meal increase in federal school lunch reimbursements. As unpalatable as many members of Congress found this bargain, a commitment from the White House and congressional leaders to reverse the cut before it was scheduled to take effect sealed the deal.

One year later, a recent report by Food Bank For New York City finds New Yorkers have lost more than 56 million meals as a result of these cuts. That’s more meals lost in this city alone than a typical food bank distributes in a year. These meals have been taken off the plates of some of our most vulnerable neighbors – children, seniors, people with disabilities, and working New Yorkers whose earnings fall short of meeting basic needs.

While the SNAP cuts that took effect on November 1, 2013, were ultimately met with little more than hand-wringing by the leaders who approved them, our city’s food pantries and soup kitchens were slammed. Approximately three-quarters of the 800 or so emergency food providers in Food Bank For New York City’s network saw an immediate increase in the number of visitors on their lines.

One year later, food pantries and soup kitchens are reporting food shortages at an alarming rate – a clear indication that the current supply of food does not go nearly far enough. This past September alone, 60% of food pantries and soup kitchens reported running out of food for complete pantry bags or soup kitchen meals. Thirty-seven percent reported having to turn people away and 61% reported reducing the amount of food in their pantry bags because of food shortages.

Related: If the economy is up, why isn’t hunger going down?

We call our network of food pantries and soup kitchens the last line of defense against hunger. When New Yorkers run out of food and money, the emergency food network is where they turn. When they’ve exhausted benefits like SNAP, a food pantry or soup kitchen gets them through the month. And when the generosity of friends and family shows its limits, a local pantry or kitchen is where they seek a warm meal.

We measure need in meals, and the Meal Gap is our metric. Developed at the behest of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Meal Gap translates food insecurity into something more concrete and actionable. The Meal Gap measures the number of meals that are missing and needed for struggling families to have an adequate diet. With The Meal Gap, we can map where hunger lives and create local strategies to address local need. Recognizing the usefulness of this information, this year, the City of New York became the first municipality in the country to adopt the Meal Gap as its official food insecurity metric.

Before SNAP benefits were cut, there was a meal gap in our city of 250 million meals. Our network was already in that gap, and overwhelmed by the need. Indeed, a generous estimate of the emergency food provided by food pantries and soup kitchens across the city still leaves a shortfall of about 100 million meals.

Our city’s most vulnerable require that more of us step into the meal gap. From our elected leaders to the average citizen, everyone can play a role. Congress should recognize the reauthorization of Child Nutrition programs this year as a tremendous opportunity to reduce child hunger. We all have a role to play in filling the gap as well: with our voices, with our time and talent, to assist local charities on the front lines; and with our resources, to provide food and needed services to our neighbors in need.

The meal gap is only as wide as we allow it to be. Stepping into it is the greatest and most needed act of compassion. Believe me, there’s room for all of us.

Margarette Purvis is President and CEO of Food Bank For New York City.