When Len first came to St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church’s Lunchtime Ministry in Hoboken, N.J., it was as a last resort. Born in Jersey City in 1959, Len (last name withheld) had attended technical school in Texas before being deployed to California to work as a forklift driver for the Air Force. After his honorable discharge, he stayed in California. But when his father died, Len moved back to New Jersey to take care of his mother. When she died in 2011, he had nowhere to go.

Lunchtime Ministry provided a warm meal and a respite from the streets. Although it’s not an overnight shelter, Len was able to get a few hours of sleep there on the benches or the floor when he wasn’t helping out cleaning tables and taking out garbage or attending Bible study and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The ministry welcomed him, and the community was repaid by Len’s time and good humor.

More than 11% of U.S. households (about 37.2 million people) were food insecure in 2018.

This includes 12.65 million people facing “very low food security,” meaning they skipped meals or reduced their food intake multiple times during the year.

In a country where the food system provides up to 4,000 calories per person per day:

    • More than 37 million people aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.
    • And for more than 12 million people, that next meal won’t come at all.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Mutuality and hospitality are at the core of the ministry, said Stanley Enzweiler, Lunchtime Ministry program manager: “Whatever your story is, we will welcome you.”

Ministries that accompany people facing hunger aren’t unique—and neither is Len’s story of hunger in a land of plenty.

The 2018 hunger rate in this country is actually a positive sign: Food insecurity in the U.S. is at its lowest level since before the Great Recession of 2007-09, when it peaked at nearly 15%. Still, community-based programs like Lunchtime Ministry are being called on to do even more in the fight against domestic hunger and poverty, particularly as proposed legislation continues to threaten the safety nets that support people.

A tangled web

Behind the numbers is the reality that hunger, while pervasive, isn’t evenly distributed across the U.S. As the Department of Agriculture has reported, certain groups are more vulnerable than others to food insecurity. These include households headed by single women and single men and both “Black households” and “Hispanic households.”

Other research suggests that LGBTQ communities are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. According to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute, LGBTQ people experienced food insecurity in 2013 at the following rates:

25% of adults

34% of women

37% of African Americans

55% of Native Americans

78% of Native Hawaiians

The web of root causes for hunger is complex, but the uneven distribution of food insecurity gives some clues for untangling it—and helps dispel some of the myths about people facing hunger.

One of the most popular myths is that the root of the problem is people’s unwillingness to work. In 2019, this myth has fueled a proposed change to immigration and citizenship processes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. With this change, a noncitizen resident of the U.S. who receives assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly called food stamps) can be deemed a “public charge” and denied permanent residency or full citizenship.

The argument for the change stems from the notion that a person receiving public support for food is a burden to society. But the numbers don’t seem to bear this out.

Data gathered during the Great Recession suggests that the federal safety net, including SNAP, worked as it should, keeping poverty levels relatively stable when public benefits were included in household income, protecting families struggling to find work.

SNAP recipients work nearly as much as people who do not receive SNAP benefits:

In 2017, about 86% of households that did not receive SNAP benefits had at least one worker.

79% of households that did receive SNAP benefits at some point during 2017 had at least one worker.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2018 American Community Survey

Poverty is one of the clearest causes of hunger: When earned income isn’t enough to afford food, people can go hungry. In the U.S., this tends to happen at certain times of the year, such as when benefits run out at the end of the month or when seasonal work slows down for workers in agriculture or the service industry. Poverty alone, though, can’t account for all causes of hunger.

Even for households with enough income to meet the needs of everyone in the household, sudden crises can leave families vulnerable to hunger. Health issues and medical expenses are among the most common such crises. In its 2018 Supplemental Poverty Measure, the U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) estimated that out-of-pocket medical costs drove nearly 11 million people into poverty in 2017. As wages for workers in the U.S. continue to decline, fewer can weather unexpected events, like a sudden illness or loss of a job.

But it would be a mistake to view these episodes as “natural,” unavoidable events or cycles. As researchers Sandy Brown and Christy Getz argue in Cultivating Food Justice (MIT Press, 2011): “In a world of agricultural surpluses, hunger is the result not of natural processes but rather of unequal power relations and resource access.”

As the numbers show, the gender pay gap is one reason households headed by single women are disproportionately vulnerable. The USCB says that in nearly every industry in the U.S., women are paid less than men, even when accounting for differences between hours worked and their role in an organization or company. Declining wages also—though to a lesser extent—leave single male-headed households more vulnerable.

Social, legal and political structures can also leave certain communities more vulnerable to hunger and poverty. Researchers working among the Karuk American Indian community in the Klamath Mountains of northern California have found that laws restricting fishing, hunting and land access were written with recreation, rather than subsistence, in mind. In many cases, the laws and regulations have barred the Karuk from gathering food as their ancestors have done for centuries. This effectively prevents them from managing part of their own food system, a critical aspect of sustainable food security.

For LGBTQ communities, permitting employment and housing discrimination is often the source of the high percentages noted earlier. Twenty-six states allow companies to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. (At press time, the issue was before the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Trump administration arguing that current laws prohibiting discrimination don’t apply to LGBTQ communities.)

Food pantries and other feeding ministries often open the door for people to learn about the causes of hunger—and for uncovering the assets the communities have to address them. As neighbors engage one another and hear each other’s stories, the realities behind the statistics become clear. Communities built around the sharing of food can help ensure solutions come from the lived experiences and perspectives of the community, drawing on the collective wisdom of neighbors working together.

In this way, ministries that address the immediate needs of hunger are the first step for addressing the injustice that leaves neighbors vulnerable to hunger; charity sets the table for justice.

Charity and justice—the church’s calling

Responding to hunger has been part of the church’s work since its beginning. Acts 6 describes how the early church organized food distribution for the community. In 1 Corinthians, Paul chastises the church at Corinth for neglecting hungry people during the common meal. By the late second century, Christian author Tertullian called for the establishment of “trust funds” that could be used to provide for people in poverty, especially those facing hunger.

Hunger and poverty were similarly central concerns of Martin Luther. As historian Carter Lindberg noted in The European Reformations (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), Luther “explicitly tied worship and welfare together.” For Luther and the other Reformers, good works may not merit salvation, but they are the proper expression of a vital church living the gospel.

In its 2018 Supplemental Poverty Measure, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that out-of-pocket medical costs drove nearly 11 million people into poverty in 2017.

In 1528, Johannes Bugenhagen, who helped establish welfare programs within the early Reformation churches, described “the true worship of God” as “bear[ing] the burdens of our neighbor’s needs.” For Luther, Bugenhagen and others, to be church meant to be active in the world, responding to the spiritual and material needs of neighbors. To separate worship and service would be a denial of the gospel, which frees humans for service of the neighbor.

But for Luther, this meant more than meeting people’s immediate basic needs. In his treatise on Trade and Usury, for example, he chastised the court system that required peasants to travel to Rome to have their cases settled. This system, he argued, privileged the wealthy while placing undue burdens on people in poverty. The catechisms also are rife with references to injustice in the marketplace, including critiques of what today might be called price-gouging.

Luther found good works of charity to be important expressions of faith active in love. But so, too, was the critical work of establishing justice in the world. And in this, the church has a special calling.

The church today

The “true worship of God,” in Bugenhagen’s terms, is lived out today in congregations throughout the ELCA and by companion synods and ecumenical partners around the world. This year, ELCA World Hunger, the ELCA’s collective response to hunger and poverty, supported more than 70 ministries across the U.S. and the Caribbean. Some, like St. Matthew Trinity’s Lunchtime Ministry, provide a safe, welcoming place for neighbors to eat, rest and find support. Others provide vocational training, advocacy for fair and just laws, and community gardens full of fresh produce.

Each of these ministries is part of the transformative work God is doing in the world through the church to end hunger. Vocational training provides job skills while fostering self-confidence among trainees. Advocacy—particularly through the work of ELCA Advocacy, supported in part by ELCA World Hunger—lifts the church’s collective voice for justice while exercising the church’s vocation to hold governments accountable for reducing vulnerability and responding to the needs of all creation. Community gardens provide fresh food for neighbors while providing opportunities for communities to have agency within their own food systems.

This broad, comprehensive response addresses the reality that hunger is rarely about food alone. For Len, the Lunchtime Ministry is a source of food and shelter, certainly. But on a deeper level, it lays the foundation for relationships that can have far-reaching effects for Len and for the community. “A little respect goes a long way,” he said. “A lot of respect could be eternal.”

In a world where inequality divides us and public speech can shame us, relationships built on respect for human dignity and faith in God’s plan for reconciliation can make the difference in ending hunger.

As Amy Santoriello, a deacon and director of faith formation and outreach at Zion Lutheran, Penn Hills, Pa., said of her congregation’s food pantry, “It isn’t about food as much as it is about the whole person. Christ didn’t come so we can survive, Christ came so that we could have abundant life. How can we help others have abundant life?”

As she has found, abundant life goes beyond meeting needs to the long-term work of building community and working together for justice. It’s the work the church has been about since its start—and to which it is called in the future.

What you can do to end hunger

Worship on Sunday forms Lutherans for service on Monday. When your congregation gathers, include local and global hunger in your prayers, liturgy, hymns and sermons. Consider using ELCA World Hunger “40 Days of Giving” resources with your congregation during Lent. Download a weekly study, Lenten calendar and more at elca.org/40days.

World Hunger resources—including adult studies, vacation Bible school curricula, toolkits and more—can help you, your family and your congregation learn more about hunger around the world and in the U.S. Visit elca.org/hunger/resources to download or order. Learn more about hunger and poverty in your community here.

World Hunger is a primary way the ELCA supports ministries working to end hunger—including sustainable agriculture, maternal health care, refugee resettlement, microloans for new businesses and more. Visit elca.org/hunger to learn more and to support this vital ministry.

ELCA Advocacy helps congregation members connect with legislators at the federal, state and local levels to ensure fair and just laws and policies. Learn more at elca.org/advocacy.

Follow ELCA ministries on social media to get the latest information on grants, new resources and current events. Follow World Hunger, Lutheran Disaster Response and ELCA Advocacy on Facebook. For faith reflections, stories and updates, visit World Hunger’s blog.

If you feel called to start or to grow a hunger ministry, check out World Hunger’s how-to guides on community gardens, backpack programs and food drives for tips from other leaders in ELCA ministries.

Ryan P. Cumming
Ryan P. Cumming is program director for hunger education with ELCA World Hunger.

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