Feeding Kentucky is a year-round challenge

During this festive holiday season, many of us are pulling up to tables laden with an abundance of delicious food. It speaks well of the American spirit that it is also a time when we think about those who are less fortunate.

The number of people in Kentucky currently seeking help to feed themselves and their families is staggering.

A new report released by Feeding America and the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, Hunger in Kentucky 2014, shows that every year, more than 600,000 Kentuckians, one in seven, receive food assistance through the Feeding America network of food banks and the agencies they serve.

Food banks are no longer just an emergency network. Our clients are facing chronic needs. The average number of times a household turns to a food bank in Kentucky is seven per year. Food banks were set up to provide episodic assistance in a crisis, such as a medical emergency or car accident. Instead, we have become a regular part of many families' monthly efforts to make ends meet.

The face of hunger in Kentucky may surprise you. Many of the people served by food banks have jobs and homes and are raising families. More than one-third of the households served by food banks in Kentucky have at least one member who worked for pay in the past year and 96 percent reside in nontemporary housing. The most common household size is two to three members.

Stagnant wages and underemployment play a role in the continuing struggle. The Hunger in Kentucky 2014 study finds that of those employed in the past year, less than half (42 percent) worked 31 hours a week or more.

Thirty percent worked 20 hours per week or less. The median annual household income is only $9,150. It is clear the recovery has yet to reach the hundreds of thousands of Kentucky households served by food banks.

The lengths to which these families go to ensure there is food on the table is shocking. Ninety percent of households we serve bought inexpensive but unhealthy food as a coping strategy.

Sixty percent bought food in dented or damaged packages, and nearly 40 percent watered down their food to make it stretch farther. Most are employing more than one of these strategies.

More troubling are the tradeoffs our clients must make. Nearly 70 percent had to choose between paying for food or for medical care or utilities. A third of the households we serve had to make these excruciating choices every single month.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) has done wonders to help feed the most vulnerable families, but only 65 percent of our client households are participating in the program.

Among those households that do receive SNAP benefits, only 7 percent report that the benefits usually last four weeks or more. When the benefits run out after a week or two, struggling families turn to food banks to help fill the gap.

Food insecurity is particularly devastating to children. Thirty percent of households we serve contain a child under 18. Sixteen percent include grandparents who have responsibility for grandchildren who live with them.

Not having enough of the right kinds of food to eat can have serious implications for a child's physical and mental health, academic achievement and future economic prosperity.

Individuals, charities, businesses and government all have a role to play in solving hunger in Kentucky. We must work together so every Kentucky family has enough healthy food to eat, not just during the holiday season but all 12 months of the year.

Please visit www.kyfoodbanks.org to learn how you can join the fight against hunger in Kentucky.