12/14/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Hungry for Meaning

If you've ever had to fast for 24 hours before a medical procedure, you know the discomfort of an empty stomach. Not pleasant perhaps, but at least it's fleeting.

It's a different story for the millions of Americans who live on the margins. For them, the nagging hunger pains rarely go away and are a constant reminder that they don't know where their next meal--or mouthful--is coming from. For them, hunger hurts.

Millions of Americans hungry on a regular basis? It seems almost impossible. Despite the economic downtown, the US is still one of the most prosperous nations on earth.

So who are America's hungry? Our most vulnerable neighbors are among the hardest hit. One in five children and one in 12 older adults are hungry or at risk of hunger. Their plight is often unknown because these bookend generations tend to suffer in silence--and that makes it easy for naysayers to play down the seriousness of hunger in America.

Just the other day, a radio program on hunger included a business journalist who repeatedly downplayed the extent of our hunger problem. Besides, he said, people need to stop expecting help from the government and get out and work for their food. Great idea--unless you happen to be a child or an older adult who can no longer work. Perhaps if our children and older adults could speak out more forcefully on their own behalf, the journalist might have demurred.

To get a better look at the twin issues of hunger and nutrition in the US today, my organization, Generations United, commissioned a poll conducted by Harris Interactive in September. The poll found that, in the past year, nearly one-third of adults in America have either experienced lack of food or been concerned about food insecurity among their family, friends, or neighbors. Equally troubling, one in 10 adults went without a basic need (such as food, medicine, or health care) in order to provide food for another family member.

Hunger is real and it is pervasive. We need to act now, not later.

So, what can we do? From the poll I mentioned earlier, Generations United created a report called Hunger and Nutrition: What's at Stake for Children, Families and Older Adults that we recently released. In it, we offer recommendations for all sectors of society on how to get involved in combating hunger.

Many of the recommendations are crucial to resolving the issue, but are not new. They include protecting and strengthening support for critical federal food programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that are in danger of being severely cut by Congress as one way of avoiding the fiscal cliff. Other recommendations include increasing income and access to supports for low-income families, engaging the business community in finding solutions, and supporting and promoting approaches that encourage healthy and nutritious diets.

But because hunger knows know age limits, its eradication will require people of all ages working together to find solutions. At Generations United, we believe policies fragmented by age cause problems that we can solve only by addressing them across age groups. And many of our recommendations reflect that philosophy. For example, we recommend:
  • coordinating federal nutrition programs to better serve family members of all ages, rather than forcing them to navigate the current complex maze of services;
  • locating food programs for children and older adults at common facilities so the different generations can interact and communities save money by supporting one building rather than two;
  • replacing the "traditional" senior center models" with ones that provide nutritious food while engaging older adults in service and other intergenerational opportunities; and
  • engaging students in volunteer opportunities where they can serve and learn from older adults in food and nutrition settings.
I urge you to read the report and reflect on the recommendations--especially the ones that call for intergenerational approaches.

The holiday season is a time for generosity and renewal. If you make one resolution for the New Year, let it be that you will find some way to contribute to the fight against hunger. Involve your family and friends in the fight. Take a stand by volunteering and advocating for policies that bind us together rather than drive us apart. After all, we're stronger when we work together.