Gwen operates a food pantry in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Lauren helps at the pantry, and Michael periodically assists. In 2007, when Gwen started managing the food pantry, about 250–300 people would come each month to receive food. It was not gourmet dining (canned tuna, vegetables, tomatoes, spaghetti, rice, peanut butter, dried beans, and so on), but the people appreciated the gift, and the church could manage the distribution with a handful of dedicated volunteers.

Three years later, the number of people who come to the Christ Church food pantry has increased tenfold to 2500–3000 a month. At first, because of rapidly increasing demand related to the recession, the food pantry began receiving free food from the state and federal governments. The federal food subsidy made it possible to provide a more balanced supply, and the pantry was able to obtain juices, chicken, turkeys, and other proteins.

In 2008, with demand increasing, the amount of food the federal and state governments supplied dropped by two thirds because of reduced government budgets. The food pantry has continued to provide the same amount of food because of donations from parishioners and local banks, local businesses, and nonprofits, but how long this relatively small church with other obligations will be able to continue to provide this level of food delivery is unclear.

Readers of the Journal know that food insecurity is only one part of poverty.14 Inadequate nutrition all too often is associated with inadequate shelter, lack of health care, and bad education, and poverty is at the core of all. As we found in a survey of the food pantry's clients, many had personal and family issues such as mental disorders, substance abuse, and domestic conflicts. Some are homeless, many more fear eviction, and some are illiterate or functionally illiterate, making it impossible for them to find safety systems through print or computers.

This story recurs across the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture defines household food insecurity as the absence of sufficient food for a healthy and active lifestyle for all household members and existing food that does not meet nutritional requirements.4,5 The food insecure proportion of the US population increased from 11.1% to almost 14.6% between 2007 and 2008.5 The prevalence of very low food security (the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and eating patterns disrupted because of insufficient resources) increased from 4.1% to 5.7%. These proportions were the highest recorded prevalence of food insecurity since the US Food and Drug Administration began its annual survey in 1995. In November 2009, just before Thanksgiving, the White House stated that “hunger rose significantly last year.”6 They observed that 49 million Americans lacked access to adequate food. Food pantries, such as the one at Christ Church, are in high demand during the current deep recession. We have seen lines of people 50 meters long and three across, with people waiting more than an hour for food.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans saw that chronic and acute hunger were part of the poverty-related pattern we see today. The New Deal began providing services and resources to poor people across the country, and a generation later the war on poverty focused programs on poor people in targeted areas. Food stamps, nutritional supplements in schools, more public housing, and efforts to improve education and provide health care and many other services became policy instruments to address the reality the poor faces. The political consensus was that people without food, shelter, health care, and other services were victims of economic and political circumstances that they had little, if any, control over. The United States, the United Kingdom, and other first world nations decided that they had a social, political, and moral responsibility to provide support for the domestic disadvantaged.

In times of need, people have historically turned to faith-based organizations; many food pantries are faith based. Nearly 3000 providers serve the homeless in America, 53% of them church affiliated.7 Many religions have a moral code, including assisting those in need, or “a duty to give… . Giving to charity is neither charitable nor generous; it is no more than our duty and not giving would be wrong.”8 This ethical code prompts faith-based organizations such as Christ Church to give provisions to local homeless people.

Secular groups provide the other half of the required food and other parts of the safety net. In New Brunswick, for example, a secular organization near Christ Church provides meals for a needy, typically homeless population. The religious and secular providers understand that the magnitude of the need exceeds their resources, and they work together. Furthermore, these providers are, luckily, in a university town where students are more than willing to help. Such support is much less available in other places.

In Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson,9 Johnson is quoted as saying, “Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”9 Gandhi, Churchill, and other thinkers religious and secular, liberal and conservative have offered similar comments. The United States remains the world's most affluent large nation. Its proportion of poorly nourished and otherwise poor people has been growing. What policies and messages could address this sharp increase in food insecurity?

Assertions that disadvantaged people are exploiting taxpayers rose to the forefront of partisan politics in the 1970s.10 The assertion is a core of the anti–big government, antiliberal, and antisocialism platforms. Food, education, welfare, housing, and other programs have been cut or eliminated.

The arguments against big government, socialism, taxes, and liberal viewpoints and policies have recently become more strident, as have the responses to these messages. Addressing food insecurity becomes more difficult in a combative environment in which facts are not accepted but seen as part of a political argument rather than as an on-the-ground reality that merits a thoughtful and meaningful response. Those who think that food pantries' clients are having a picnic at the public's expense and getting fat at the same time and that these programs are replete with fraud ought to visit some. Similarly, those who assert that every person in line for food really merits it and never sells the food to someone else ought to understand that it is impossible to verify the validity of every identification card and signature or follow people once they leave the site. More discourse about the undernourished poor needs to be grounded in real information and personal observation, not politically massaged data.

The US government's lack of economical support contributes to the widening inequality in the nation.11 During a period of economic distress, government and for-profit organization budgets are squeezed and the vulnerability of marginalized people rises—as does the stress on small nonprofit organizations that try to fill part of the gap that some government and for-profit donors have left.

Elected officials and agency staff are responsible for assessing the reality, developing appropriate policies, and communicating these rather than bowing to politically convenient slogans for ignoring the poor. Providing what Samuel Johnson called “decent provision” in the form of food, shelter, and other necessities is not a step toward socialism requiring major tax increases and bankruptcy of the nation for generations to come. Aggressive government monitoring and response is called for. Other more powerful national and international forces that are widely discussed are at the heart of fiscal stress that we feel as a nation. But it is more than fiscal stress that the poor feel when they cannot feed their families and themselves.


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Michael Greenberg, PhD, Gwendolyn Greenberg, BA, and Lauren MazzaMichael Greenberg is with the Edward J. Bloustein School, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Gwen dolyn Greenberg and Lauren Mazza are with the Christ Church Food Pantry in New Brunswick, NJ. Lauren Mazza is a candidate for an undergraduate degree at the Bloustein School, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. “Food Pantries, Poverty, and Social Justice”, American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): pp. 2021-2022.

PMID: 20935259