Hunger is not a foreign concept or a thing of the past. It is not selective or mindful of those it affects. Hunger is a pandemic that is sweeping across our nation at an increasingly high rate. There are ways to stop it, but we need action; we need dedicated people to step up and be outspoken about hunger and its affects on our nation’s people. 68% of pantry programs and 42% of soup kitchens have no paid staff and rely solely on volunteers to manage and maintain their programs. Without the support of regular, consistent volunteers, organizations that can make the most progress in addressing critical hunger needs in their neighborhoods, cannot fully realize their potential.

Feeding America is a national organization dedicated to hunger relief. Working daily with individual agencies which include food pantries, soup kitchens, and residential shelters, Feeding America is the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S. Their partner agencies can be found in all fifty states as well as The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Every year, Feeding America receives and allocates more than 2.6 billion pounds of grocery and food products to 61,000 agencies nationwide.

According to the Feeding America Hunger Study published earlier this year, the amount of people in need of food assistance in 2009 reached an all time high of 37 million individuals. This was a dramatic increase from the 2005 number of 25.3 million (a 46% increase). Of those 37 million, nearly 14 million are children under the age of 18 and almost 3 million are senior citizens. However, it is not just the homeless, children and seniors who suffer from hunger and food shortages. The Feeding America study separated the people in need of food assistance in to three categories:

Low Income: The majority of clients seeking emergency food assistance from Feeding America are part of households living below the federal poverty line. In fact, 74% of households served by the Network had annual incomes below the federal poverty level, or less than $17,163 a year for a household of three in 2008. The average monthly income for a household served was $940 for the previous month and the average yearly household income was $13,030 for 2008.

Resource Poor: In addition to living in poverty, recipients of emergency food typically have limited resources from which to draw when struggling with financial difficulties. Ten percent of client households are homeless. Sixty percent do not have access to a working car. Many survey respondents indicated that they have been forced to choose between food and utilities (46%); food and rent or mortgage (40%); food or medicine or medical care (34%); food or transportation (35%); and food or gasoline (36%). More than one in three emergency food recipients must choose between an everyday necessity and sufficient food.

Food Insecure: Utilizing the federal government’s measure of food security, 76% of client households served by Feeding America were “food insecure”. Since 1995, the U.S. Census Bureau and USDA Economic Research Service have collected information through the annual Current Population Survey on “food insecurity,” defined as “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members; limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”

Source: Feeding America: Hunger in America 2010, Executive Summary

While our country is in the midst of one of the greatest recessions we have ever encountered, it is more important than ever to be aware and active in fighting hunger in America. Although many things are being done on a national level, such as federal nutrition programs like SNAP and TEFAP, it is growing more and more imperative that we look locally for assistance and action. Currently in Illinois over 28% of residences are either living in poverty or are at risk of falling into poverty. With nearly 74% of all Illinoisans living in the Chicagoland area, the numbers are even more dramatic for the northeastern region of the sate. And these numbers are not getting smaller. With new factors coming into play more and more people are being affected by hunger issues. In February 2009 there was one job opening for every 5 Midwesterners looking for a job. In the same month 8.6% of Illinoisans were unemployed. With the recession beating down the doors of Illinois residence and forcing them from their homes the number of those affected by hunger has become staggering. In Chicago alone, 50.2% of residences live in low-income to impoverished conditions. While the city of Chicago has the highest sales tax in the nation, we also have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, a staggering 9.7%.

So, how can you help? Hunger is one of the most pressing issues surrounding our country today. With millions of Americans living in low income to poverty stricken conditions we are hearing the call to serve even more loudly. Chicago Cares has partnered with Feeding America partner agencies to offer programs and growing assistance to families and individuals in need. However, the call doesn’t end here. While volunteers are a necessity to create, manage, and implement these programs, monetary donations are also needed. Volunteers and their donations pave the way for new programs and assistance to be brought to the men, woman, and children in need of food assistance. In an effort to battle hunger, Chicago Cares has designed a unique model that allows our partner organizations to remain open at times they regularly would not be. This gives residents access to food, supplies, and resources that would otherwise be unavailable. With eager volunteers, Chicago Cares is able to strengthen community ties and fight at the front lines of hunger. If the pantry door is locked and no one is there to open the doors, unload the trucks or stock the shelves, then the mother of three in need of assistance gets none. No amount of food gathered in a food bank will make a difference to her, if she can not access it.To donate to Chicago Cares so we may continue to offer relevant programs and assistance to those in dire need, click here.To sign up and volunteer with a Chicago Cares Hunger Program, view our calendar and select the “Hunger” issue area located at the top of the calendar.

National sources and statistics: Feeding America: Hunger in America 2010 Study .Regional sources and statistics: Heartland Alliance