WATCH: Why Did 6 Million People Join Hands To Reach Across America?

In 1985, a study of hunger in America revealed that roughly 20 million people were not able to get enough food to adequately nourish themselves. The doctors who completed the work concluded that hunger was an “epidemic” in this country, even though there was clearly enough food being produced to feed everyone.

At that time, the media rarely covered the issues of hunger and homelessness in the United States, and the general public was not aware of how widespread these problems had become.

So Ken Kragen decided that it was time to mobilize and to raise public awareness. Kragen had been the driving force behind “USA for Africa,” an effort which raised millions of dollars for food aid to the ravaged continent.

However, when he got home from Africa, says Kragen, people continually asked him, “What are you going to do about hunger in America?”

The Huffington Post writes that Kragen took up the challenge and decided to raise both money and awareness to help ease hunger and homelessness. He organized an event which he called “Hands Across America.”

In a time before cell phones or social media, Kragen managed to publicize the event widely enough that he was able to rally roughly six million people. On May 25th, 1986, those people held hands to form a linked chain that reached across the entire continent. They stretched from New York to Los Angeles, joining together in a powerful show of unity and hope.

In some places the line was five or six people deep, while in others there were temporary gaps. Reports came in of people rushing to fill the vacant spots, including a bus driver who pulled over and ordered all of his passengers to join the line.

Via Wikipedia

Many people paid $10 to “hold a place in line” while others simply made a donation. The effort raised nearly $34 million to fight hunger.

More importantly, according to Ken Kragen, it raised the awareness of the media and the public about the serious epidemic of poverty that existed in the U.S. at the time. News coverage was widespread and very positive. Kragen and his supporters hoped that by gathering so many people together in this powerful symbol, the problem of hunger in the U.S. would be on its way to a solution.

Unfortunately, statistics today show that just the opposite is true. Not only has the problem not been solved, it has grown considerably worse. The graph below shows that the number of hungry Americans has grown.

Chart shows the number of federal food stamp recipients since 1971
Chart shows the number of federal food stamp recipients since 1971.  (Google images)

Estimates are that one in every seven Americans is now experiencing food insecurity. More than 560,000 people are homeless on any given night.

On this 30th anniversary of “Hands Across America”, Ken Kragen reflected on the continuing epidemic of hunger in the U.S.:

“We have 50 million people going to bed hungry at night; 17 million of those are children. Those are just unbelievable figures in the richest country in the world and they’re ones that need to be dealt with.”


Featured image screengrab via YouTube

Karen is a retired elementary school teacher with many years of progressive activism behind her. She is the proud mother of three young adults who were all arrested with Occupy Wall Street. To see what she writes about in her spare time, check out her blog at "Empty Nest, Full Life"