CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In recent months the spotlight on hunger has been bright. Fiery debates about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food insecurity and poverty are at the forefront of public discussion. Appearing beside all of the media stories covering this topic are articles remembering President Kennedy, a leader whose first act as president was to order food aid to hungry people in the United States. Despite the issue's heavy presence in our media and the heated arguments about hunger, little progress has been made in solving the problem. The dialogue has focused primarily on what isn't and what shouldn't be.
Among those directly affected, but seldom mentioned, are our nation's seniors, those who remember all too well that horrific day when Kennedy was assassinated. Often hidden in their homes and uncertain about their next meal, these elderly citizens urgently warrant our attention, particularly because our senior population is growing, and growing rapidly.
As the number of seniors increases, so does senior hunger -- at a rate that even surpasses their population growth. The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger's most recent research shows a substantial, and unacceptable, increase in seniors facing the threat of hunger from 2001 to 2011. In 2011, 8.8 million seniors nationally faced the threat of hunger -- an 88 percent increase since 2001 and a 42 percent increase since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Put another way, one in 9 seniors faced the threat of hunger in 2001, while in 2011 nearly one in every 6 seniors was affected.
This national scope mirrors senior hunger on the state and local level as well. And no place is it more pronounced than in McDowell County, West Virginia, the formerly vibrant coal mining area that President Kennedy loved, as was noted in a recent USA Today special commemorative section on the former President. But since the days of Kennedy and his famous tours around southern West Virginia, a great deal has changed in McDowell County. Many could argue that the state of the County reflects the overall state of senior hunger across our nation today. It is just one more problem that is much easier to ignore than to fix.
Instead of viewing senior hunger, and all hunger for that matter, as a challenge, we would all be better served by viewing the issue as an opportunity, just as President Kennedy did. When others did not, he recognized the importance of beginning the dialogue about our nation's hidden troubles; he saw that, most often, the worst circumstances bring out the very best in the American people's desire and capacity to respond to need. Kennedy taught us that through courage, perseverance and pride, almost any feat can be accomplished. Even an issue as overwhelming as hunger in America.
Our local communities have already lead the fight to curb this growing epidemic, and you don't have to look any further than one of Kennedy's favorite places in West Virginia: McDowell County. Today, McDowell County residents are honoring the Kennedy legacy by taking steps to change the future of the County for the better through initiatives like the Reconnecting McDowell Project and other collaborations aimed at fighting the region's ills of hunger, poverty and unemployment. Despite the complex and seemingly unyielding nature of these issues, people both in the County and outside it are refusing to give up and give in. They are embracing the common West Virginia practice of neighbors helping neighbors; young and old alike are simply rolling up their sleeves and working together to develop tangible, sustainable solutions to not only ending, but also preventing, hunger in our communities. Instead of focusing on the way things are, they are uniting to imagine the way things could -- and should -- be.
As the national debates about hunger and poverty continue, perhaps we are at a point when we all need to step back and follow the examples set forth by President Kennedy and the people of McDowell. Rather than continuing to flirt with hopelessness, widen the divide and inch closer to a day when our country will become complacent with the state of hunger in our country, now is the time to begin working together in earnest so that progress can finally be realized. As President Kennedy once said "the sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do." There is a message in that today for all of us.
Manchin is a U.S. senator from West Virginia; Borden is president and CEO of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.