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Solving Our 'Food Insecurity' Crisis

On a day touted for feasts, many among us are hungry and deal with food insecurity year-round.

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on November 24, 2015. 

By Chandi Edmonds

Walking downtown after lunch recently, I passed a teenage boy with a sad but soft face, wearing disheveled clothes with holes and tennis shoes with one missing a sole. Another passerby had just given him a meal of leftovers in a restaurant container. He was asking for money.

When I asked why he needed money, he replied it was to buy food for himself, his younger brothers and his sister. He said his mother was unemployed and was having a hard time managing the care of four children.

Years ago this could have been me. My mom was raising two children as a single parent when she was laid off during the late 1980s from her high-paying job as an account executive.

To feed my sister and me, my mother worked minimum-wage jobs, mostly two at a time. She delivered newspapers at 4 a.m. and delivered takeout food at 6 p.m. To help, I made hair bows from found crafts and sold them at school.

As millions of Americans plan their Thanksgiving menus and decide between serving turkey or ham, mashed potatoes or candied yams, others will struggle to decide if they can afford to prepare a holiday meal or pay the electric bill instead.

This year the average bill for Thanksgiving meal preparations is $50.11 for 10 people, compared to $28.74 in 1985.

Websites and cooking shows tout recipes for new ways to serve Thanksgiving leftovers. And hundreds of articles address how to avoid overeating.

But it is a good time to remember that for millions of people, overeating and leftovers are not even an issue.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2014, 14 percent of American households did not have access to adequate food. This food insecurity is even higher in households with children, estimated at 23 percent.

During my family's struggle, my mother was able to shepherd us through those extremely hard years with assistance from family members and government aid, known at the time as food stamps.

In a recent study, an association was found between children with substandard meals and cognitive impairment. Other findings show that children in food-insecure households have higher odds of being in fair or poor health, have up to 2.6 times higher odds of having asthma and up to three times higher odds of having anemia.

As I spoke with the now-talkative young boy, we walked one block to a small grocery store where I asked him to pick out food his family would like. He chose bananas, chocolate cereal and bread.

While many Americans may volunteer or contribute to food banks this time of year, they need to understand that hunger and food insecurity are a year-round issue. About 25 percent of food banks report not having enough food to meet the needs of their clients in the last 12 months.

Even with food-supplement programs, many families have difficulty keeping food on the table. A staggering 84 percent of low-wage workers were eligible for food-supplement programs at least one month of the year.

The USDA estimates that the minimum cost of feeding a male teenager is $174.30 per month. The food stamp program, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, states the average monthly benefit is $125.07 per person. That leaves a hunger gap.

So, as we serve ourselves seconds at our Thanksgiving Day feast, we would do well to remember that food insecurity is seasonless for many Americans.

- Chandi Edmonds is a physical therapist and assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is a fellow in The OpEd Project's NU Public Voices Fellowship.

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