With about 49 million Americans lacking full access to food and water according to the USDA, Lisa Davis from Feeding America came to University of Richmond on Tuesday to discuss solutions to what she called “food insecurity” in a lecture supplementing the One Book, One Richmond campaign.
Davis is the senior vice president of government relations for Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S., which Davis said had served roughly 3.3 billion meals to needy Americans just last year. According to her presentation, one in seven Americans turns to the Feeding America network at some point in his or her life, which includes 16 million children and more than seven million seniors.
U.S. hunger and poverty levels had been improving throughout the 1990s, with 11.3 percent poverty rate in 2000 down from 15.1 percent in 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the 2008 recession reversed much of the progress, and the poverty rate climbed back up to 15.1 percent within two years, Davis said. Accordingly, she decided to focus much of her speech on the findings of Feeding America’s latest “Hunger in America” report, a quadrennial study on the state of charitable food assistance.
“Our food banks collectively serve 46.5 million Americans,” she said, and added that 39 percent of those households had at least one child and another third had at least one senior. She sought to dispel any stereotypes of the impoverished, such as that they are all young, lazy people “who just want to sit around and eat Cheetos.” Rather, people ages 60 and older represent 17 percent of the clients coming through Feeding America. “We’re seeing people coming from all ages,” Davis said. The “Hunger in America” report had been compiled by surveying around 60,000 of Feeding America’s clients, she said.
Davis made it apparent very early in her lecture that she referred to the people who needed Feeding America’s services as “clients,” rather than “the hungry” or “the impoverished.” She said that at all Feeding America food banks, participants were called “clients,” and she could not stress enough how important it was for the clients to retain their dignity throughout their ordeal of not always being able to put food on the table. “It’s really hard for folks to turn somewhere to ask for food. Not being able to feed your family without help is probably one of the most demoralizing things that folks can experience,” she said.
Davis pointed to the glaring flaws in some of the other federal programs that provide meal assistance, which have also contributed to this recent hunger spike. She said one of the most eye-opening moments for her was when she had her staff fill out food stamp applications in order to gauge their navigability. Her team ran into all sorts of issues, encountering uncertain terms, vague directions and other ambiguous language.
“All of us have advanced degrees, we have a couple of lawyers on staff, and we all flummoxed at different points in time.” She said the process of trying to complete the application was highly stressful even without having anything personal at stake as she filled it out.
Toward the end of her lecture, Davis began to turn much of the focus toward failures on the part of Congress to do anything to help the anti-hunger efforts. She said congressional partisanship and polarization was at an alarmingly high level, making it difficult for more permanent plans to be made to fight national hunger. This leaves groups such as Feeding America to shoulder the eleemosynary burden in the meantime.
Even the Senate and House agricultural committees, long regarded as some of the most bipartisan, have seen their progress stalled by party squabbles, especially the Great Recession. “The [top priority] in Congress for the past several years has been deficit-reduction,” she said. While deficit-reduction certainly should have been prioritized during this time, doing so did not necessarily have to take away from national efforts to curtail hunger levels, she said.
Davis spoke on campus as part of the Richmond's Office of the Chaplaincy’s One Book, One Richmond program. This year’s selection was “The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement” by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. According to the university’s website, the book is about “the transformation of a cramped food bank into a thriving community food center,” and served as a literary supplement to Davis’ discussion.
Contact reporter Jacob Steinfield at firstname.lastname@example.org