The Christmas season seems to start earlier every year. Last month, a neighbor put up twinkling silver lights, and the day after Thanksgiving, we saw cars carrying trees on their roofs.

So it’s not too early to make our annual appeal: This holiday season, give the gift of food. And health.

We started this tradition in our own family a number of years ago, when we realized we were scrambling around to find gifts for each other that we clearly didn’t need. We decided to take the money instead and donate it to feeding programs in our area.

Now we’ve expanded the idea. Our six grandchildren still get real presents. Everyone else on our list gets a tree ornament and a tasteful card telling them that the rest of their gift is going to alleviate what the government delicately calls “food insecurity.” Few of us require more things to cram into over-stuffed drawers and closets. Nor would we miss prowling through endless websites or crowded parking lots. As we’ve said before: Hungry families don’t return a ham or a turkey because it didn’t fit. Good economic news has caused a slight decrease in the percentage of American families facing periodic hunger: from 18.9 percent last year to 17.2 percent this year, according to Gallup.

“I absolutely would describe it as a glimmer of hope,” Elaine Waxman, a vice president of food bank network Feeding America, told NPR.

But only a glimmer. Feeding America reported last summer that 46 million people, 1 in 7 Americans, relied on outside help to feed their families at some point last year.

“The results from this historic study are truly alarming,” noted Bob Aiken, CEO of Feeding America. “Many of the people we serve struggle not only to get enough to eat, but also to keep a roof over their heads, the lights on in their homes, and to cover health care and medicine costs.”

Many of those people don’t fit the common stereotypes of poverty and hunger, either. More than 2 in 5 are white; 12 million are children and 7 million are seniors; 620,000 households include someone serving in the military.

“The people who come here are hard workers,” Linda Patterson, executive director of a feeding program in the Washington suburbs, told USA Today. “They are employed. They are the school bus drivers, the lab techs in doctors’ offices, receptionists, the janitors who clean the floor of your children’s school. They just can’t make ends meet because some kind of crisis has hit them.” For Derek, a transit worker in St. Louis, that crisis hit when his wife left home. Now a single dad raising three kids, Derek told his story to Feeding America: “I work nights so I can be there for my kids during the day. You know, even though I’m working and doing well, I still always come up short — between paying for clothes, insurance, school supplies. Things get expensive.

“There came a point when I knew I had to ask for help — that I could not do this all on my own,” Derek says. “It’s a humbling experience, going to a food pantry, but you got to do what you’ve got to do. The pantry gives me healthy food to feed my kids.”

Then there’s Jahzaire Sutton, then 12, who told MSNBC last year what it’s like to go to school hungry: “I wasn’t able to focus on my schoolwork and that kind of affected my grades. And it was very frustrating, because all I could think of (was) food when I went to school, because I wasn’t able to eat breakfast at home.”

“A lot of people such as myself, we do work,” added his mother Angela. You’re “ashamed (and) bashful” about relying on charity but “by the end of the month, you’re running low, because you just don’t have the money to maintain the whole month.” Public policies can help here. Trims in food stamp benefits passed by Congress last year should be reversed. Lawmakers should listen to President Obama and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.75 an hour to $10.10. But anyone working a 40-hour week at that rate still only makes about $21,000 a year — below the official poverty line for a family of four. So private charity must fill the gap. Contribute what you can. Food. Money. Time. In this land of bounty, no 12-year-old should have to go to school thinking about his next meal instead of his next class.

Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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