The Scope and Demographics of Hunger in America and a Salary Question

Feed America

August 18, 2014; WZVN-TV

A new report on hunger in America has been released by Feeding America and the findings are sobering, to say the least. As we justifiably feel increasingly confident about the state of the economy as it continues to emerge from the Great Recession, it is healthy to remind ourselves just how much need is out there, and this report hits the nail on the head.

Feeding America is a system of organizations around the country established to receive, catalogue, and distribute donations of food to food-service programs such as food pantries or meal programs. Feeding America also provides funding for its partner agencies as well as some technical support and research on hunger. The report is the result of data collection conducted mostly in 2013 from 12,500 food programs in the Feeding America network and 60,000 clients.

The information contained in the report, “Hunger in America 2014,” suggests that hunger in America is changing and startlingly pervasive. In many cases, the people being served will surprise you. For example, 20 percent of households served have at least one family member who has served or is currently serving in the military; we are not taking care of people who have put their lives on the line.

The report is well worth reading and is not very long. It should be noted, of course, that these statistics are only from the Feeding America network, and so the actual state of hunger in America could be even more pervasive than is revealed in this report. As a teaser, we offer a handful of facts we found to be startling:

  1. The Feeding America network serves 46.5 million people every year. This means that 1 out of every 7 Americans is in need of some help getting the food they need.
  2. The network serves 12 million children and 7 million older adults each year. This does not even account for the young people served in children-only programs where the clients being served are kept protected and anonymous. These are the most vulnerable people in our society.
  3. The median annual income of households served in the network is slightly more than $9,000. A related statistic is that 72 percent of households served are below the poverty line. This is a particularly shocking number, since the federal poverty line for a family of two is $15,510; for a family of four, it is $23,550.
  4. More than 40 percent of households served report having at least one family member with education beyond high school. As a related statistic, a vast majority—93 percent—report they are in stable/permanent housing or housing that has the potential to become so. It is not an uneducated, transient population that is being served.
  5. Most households served have to make choices between spending money on food or spending it on another basic need: 69 percent report choosing between food and utilities, 67 percent between food and transportation, 66% between food and medical care, 57 percent between food and housing.

The number of people and organizations pitching in as part of the Feeding America network around the country is heartening and saddening at the same time. Nearly 2 million volunteers provide 8.4 million hours of help every year. It is heartening to know that so many people care and are willing to get involved. It is saddening that so many people have to.

Although the report celebrates the partner organizations and the myriad volunteers who are involved in the food distribution system, a scratch on the surface adds an odd note. Even as the report almost brags about the millions of hours of volunteer time donated to distribute food through its partner agencies, as many as six people at Feeding America in Chicago earn in excess of $200,000 per year, with Vicki Escarra, the CEO, making more than $370,000. (The median household income in Chicago is around $60,000.) In contrast, the report suggests that 51 percent of the more than 46,000 agencies in the network rely solely on volunteers and have no paid staff. On the other hand, the organization had almost $2 billion in public support last year. In light of the mission on the one hand, which is to serve hungry people, and the size of the operation on the other, how should salaries be set?—Rob Meiksins

  • Sarah

    I’m surprised and disappointed that the Nonprofit Quarterly would conclude this article by questioning the appropriateness of the executive salaries at Feeding America. It is possible that your intention was to speak to a broader issue of income inequality. We live in a culture where top executives at all kinds of organizations – corporations, nonprofits, academic institutions – are arguably over-compensated, and those lower down on the rungs are not fairly compensated by comparison. There is also the issue of earning a living wage. These are large societal problems that would not be solved by nonprofit executives cutting their salaries.

    To call the salaries of nonprofit employees into question, no matter what the mission of the organization, questions the value of the work of the nonprofit industry. Why is it that nonprofits are always having to defend their compensation structure and corporate executives are not questioned in the same way? Why isn’t nonprofit work valued as it is in the private sector? Nonprofit employees are somehow expected to sacrifice their own income for the privilege of doing good works. This is an unfair expectation.

    I expect this kind of questioning from folks outside the nonprofit industry, not from folks who I would otherwise regard as professional advocates.

  • Marvin S. Robinson, II

    For years we have been trying to get out civic leadership including religious decision-makers, as well, as: local, state and federal government elected officials and their professional staffs to help get a JOBS Creation project in place with our historic preservation / restoration project here in Kansas City.
    Pretty much to “NO AVAIL”, your ARTICLE is both beautiful and genius and appreciated very much. Black African American VETERANS are roughly 50% HOMELESS and several come to church’s weekly FOOD PANTRY, they are not necessarily HOMELESS, at this particular food distribution site, but the SEVERITY of non-reported UNEMPLOYED in the eyes and statistics of the Department of Labor;
    Fully diminishes the vibrant reputation of our beloved nation. Intertwine all the adversities confronting the urban poor and UNEMPLOYED American Citizens and VETERANS alike, who exist off of and from PRAYERS; in a state of managing aLL of LIFE with a “Second- by- Second” reality; and then reading your article further re-enforces the nEED to have and establish an urgent EMERGENCY for a new 21st century W.P.A. with live-able wages and meaningful salaries like the LIFE-LINE that was thrown out to AMERICANS during the GREAT DEPRESSION ERA, is NeeDed right nOw !!!
    A new 21st century W.P.A. also ought to be managed by UNIVERSITY Institutions, because the aforementioned in your article collaborated most of the previous STIMULUS Plans’ so-called “SHOVEL-READY” to everybody but, those already in the misery / sufferage index. THANKS for tell the public HOW the FEEDING Professionals make, it’s just amazing: how may institutions FEED-Off the PooR. May GOD continue to BLESS our beloved United STATES of AMERICA.

    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    Quindaro Ruins / Underground Railroad- Exercise 2015

  • J.Green

    After reading the article on Hunger in America it was actually no surprise to me that there were so many people in need of food that includes people with education. Jobs are scarce in America.

    Working for a previous non-profit agency (non-paid) board member, I understand that non-profit agencies survive only with volunteers. Thanks to the Americans that donate their time for the common good of others!

    On the other hand, to see CEOs and Executive Directors making ridiculously large sums of money off the backs of agencies that run on volunteers is deplorable and unacceptable.

    Working in the Public Sector, employees are usually held to a higher standard than private company employees. Honesty, decency, and a desire to serve the public are what they teach us at college. Paying large salaries out of step with the economy and position are just more reasons that there is rapidly becoming the rich and the poor in America, and no middle class!