What we do with the numbers is the critical question

November 20, 2023 3:00 am

(Getty images)

When Nebraskans sit down to a Thanksgiving meal this week, one in 10 of us will be overly familiar with the pang of hunger that may arrive just before we say grace.

Actually, the number is slightly higher than that. According to a Department of Agriculture report last month, from 2000 to 2022, the number of Nebraska households reporting food insecurity was 12.1%, nearly a full percentage point higher than the national average of 11.2%. The state’s percentage of food insecure households is also higher than the averages in Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Iowa and only a tenth of a percent lower than Missouri.

In a place where we throw around terms such as the “nation’s breadbasket” and claims such as “we feed the world,” the irony is obvious. That’s because one household in 10 in the same place is filled with people going hungry or parents making decisions to either pay the rent or feed their children.

That is not an indictment of producers who each year do indeed provide food for hundreds of millions. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of thousands of acres of foodstuffs and feedlots dotting a landscape where more than 12% of us is food insecure is, at the least, incongruous.

Widespread food insecurity and hunger are complex issues, sometimes entwined with powerful, entrenched forces such as generational poverty and always exacerbated by economic forces such as inflation and depressed wages. 

Still, the solution to hunger starts with recognizing it’s a problem.

Nebraska State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha said as much in an interview with Nebraska Public Media: “… This is food we’re talking about. If Nebraskans are going hungry, that’s a failure on lawmakers. Food insecurity is a growing problem. I’m hoping [these numbers] will be sobering for many lawmakers and help them realize we have a long way to go in actually resolving some of the major pieces of this problem.” 

Speaking of making things worse, in the summer of 2020, then-Gov. Pete Ricketts refused to accept any more federal funds for food assistance as part of a relief package of benefits during the pandemic. After an increase in COVID cases and hospitalizations, Ricketts reversed his decision that December, only to rescind the funds again in July 2021. Prior to that, thousands of Nebraskans relied on those dollars through SNAP to feed their families. According to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, the four-month gap cost Nebraskans $28 million in direct food benefits.

Ricketts argued in 2021 that the pandemic was over and that further federal assistance would create an unhealthy dependence on government largesse and a clear disincentive for Nebraskans unemployed because of the pandemic’s economic contraction to go back to work. 

His addicted-to-government-benefits slippery slope rationale has been conventional wisdom among those politicians hoping to reduce benefits to poor Americans.

I find it disingenuous when lawmakers call into question the money government spends to feed the hungry, millions of whom are children of the working poor, but rarely question benefits to behemoth corporations in the forms of tax breaks, bailouts and even direct subsidies. Three of the largest industrial users of federal funds and other assistance are energy, transportation, and — in another irony — agriculture, whose successes feeding the world trickle down to those who also need subsidies to put food on their tables.

I’ve yet to hear Pete Ricketts or any other lawmaker worry that a Fortune 500 company, which uses benefits including direct subsidies from the federal government, is in need of some tough love or a stint in financial rehab lest they become dependent on the government to make ends meet.

Nor am I drawing a direct line between Nebraska’s higher-than-the-national average of food insecure households and Ricketts’ decisions. The state’s food insecurity rate was actually a tick higher five years ago and above the national average then, too.

What’s important here will be our reaction to these numbers. Will we buy the notion that more subsidy creates dependence? Or will we find a way to feed our neighbors while we work to solve the root causes of why we have to. 

We might want to get right on it, too. Because while we’re eating our holiday dinner and debating which books to ban or pronouns to protest, one in 10 Nebraska households is going hungry.


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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.