(CNN)It was a tender moment Elle Dingman will remember for a long time.
Outside a small hotel in Branson, Missouri, in April, Dingman was volunteering with a local group that distributes free meals when a barefoot, barely dressed, 2-year-old boy walked up to her without hesitation.
His name was Ryder.
Dingman had never met this little boy during her rounds, but nevertheless, “he came over to me, and he grabbed my hand. He was so loving, and he wanted a hand to hold.”
As the boy’s father watched from the motel door, Dingman couldn’t help but pull out her smartphone and take a photo, posting it later on Facebook. “I just felt really grateful that I was able to hold his hand and love on him for a while,” she said.
Ryder’s family represents America’s 13.1 million households with children that often go without food: “food-insecure households.”
“Food is a struggle at times,” said Ryder’s mom, Kelly Ann Pfaffly, who also is raising a newborn boy.
Pfaffly, 23, and her 24-year-old husband, Justin, have been married five years. They — along with Ryder, his 7-year-old sister and his infant brother — all live in a small room at the hotel. “We’ve been struggling for quite sometime now,” she said. “But we always find a way to make it.”
She said she and her husband always make sure the kids have food and clothes. “Even if they don’t like wearing them,” she joked.
Money from cleaning hotel rooms doesn’t always last them through the month. Neither do foodstamps. Lately, the family’s broken-down car has made transportation difficult, prompting Kelly to quit her part-time cashier job at a local restaurant.
Located deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, the area is swimming in “up to 65,000 visitors daily who pump $1.5 billion into the local economy,” according to the Branson Tourism Center. Yet the town doesn’t have public transit.
A larger percentage of America’s food-insecure households are outside metropolitan areas, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Missouri ranked 12th in the nation for highest percentage of food-insecure households: 15.2% with “low or very low” food security in 2015, according to the USDA. North Dakota had the lowest percentage of food-insecure households with 8.5%, and Mississippi had the highest with 20.8%. The national percentage: 12.7%
‘Greed and government’
Bryan Stallings, who co-founded Jesus Was Homeless with his wife, Amy, said southwest Missouri ranks among the nation’s worst areas for child hunger, but “the community has responded with great programs.” The nonprofit serves weekly meals to about 1,400 people, about 700 of them children.
The United States exports more food than any other country in the world. So why do families with children have trouble getting enough food in such a prosperous nation?
“The non-politcal answer, to me, is greed and government,” Stallings said. “There’s too many government health restrictions that force restaurants to throw away food” instead of donating it to the needy. “It’s also greed: We’re not helping our neighbors.”
Most of it isn’t intentional, said Stallings. “It’s just not something most of us think about. We don’t take care of people anymore,” he said. “We live in a rushed society. We just don’t have time.”
Fighting hunger in southwest Missouri is challenging, he said, “because we don’t have any major industry here. The ultimate way is to connect them to employment.”
It’s a stunning figure: America throws away an estimated 40% of its food, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s an estimated $165 billion worth of food — which could go far toward feeding those 13.1 million households with children. It actually works out to about $12,600 per household. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that American families spend an average of about $150 per week on food. That’s about $7,800 a year.
Robert Lee and Louisa Chen launched a program in New York City that takes restaurant food that would otherwise be tossed out and diverts it to the hungry at homeless shelters and food kitchens. Seven days a week, the organization engages volunteers to pick up and deliver any amount of food, no matter how small.
It’s getting better
The national percentage of food-insecure households has been dropping lately. It peaked at 11% during the 2008 recession, when so many Americans were losing their jobs. But as unemployment figures began to drop, so did the number of food-insecure households. By 2015, the percentage of American food-insecure households had dipped below 8%.
Volunteers and privately funded nonprofits like Jesus Was Homeless help to ease the problem. Dingman, who took the photo of little Ryder, got involved after watching working-poor families struggle to survive paycheck to paycheck. “I just realized how many people are hurting in our community, and I wanted to help them,” Dingman said.
Helping the hungry shifted the perspective of Ashley Harkness, another Jesus Was Homeless employee.
“I started seeing that people that I used to judge are so much more like me,” Harkness said. “We’re all are only one paycheck away from poverty. The only difference is, I have someone who can help me — and they don’t.”
The war against child hunger is also being fought in America’s schools. Blessings in a Backpack is a nationwide program that helps school children who might otherwise go hungry by providing them with a backpack full of food for the weekends. It’s funded in part by Walmart, Cigna and other private companies. But once schools close for summer break, this and many other school-linked programs disappear until the fall.
The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides needy children with free breakfast and lunch at schools. But the USDA in May began relaxing guidelines for that program, opening the door to meals with reduced whole grains, higher sodium and higher fat and sweetened milk.
Hunger elsewhere in North America
One in nine people goes to bed hungry every night worldwide, according to the UN’s World Food Program.
In Canada, where an estimated 1.1 million children suffer food insecurity, food banks have begun a national fundraising campaign.
In Mexico, which struggles with a poverty rate around 45%, the government launched its National Crusade Against Hunger in 2013. It included government-run kitchens aimed at feeding needy neighborhoods. Supporters have claimed successes, but critics expressed doubts about the program’s effectiveness.
Stronger communities through volunteerism
Back in southwest Missouri, Jesus Was Homeless focuses on its mission to feed the hungry and help the needy. Stallings said it fosters strong communities through volunteerism.
“They’re building a circle of friends and relationships,” he said. “And I think that’s huge.”
Kelly and Justin Pfaffly want nothing more for little Ryder and his siblings than most parents: a safe place to live and raise their kids and enough work to make a living.
“We never ask for much unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Justin Pfaffly said.
Currently, they’re relying on the kindness of their employer — a hotel owner who advanced them rent money to live in the hotel in exchange for work cleaning rooms and performing maintenance.
They believe that if they can somehow purchase a reliable vehicle, it could give them better job options and more opportunities.