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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hunger in America

That one in every six people in America -- the richest country on Earth -- struggles with hunger is totally unacceptable. In 2010, 17.2 million households were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States, according to the World Hunger Education Service. More than 50 MILLION Americans don't have dependable, consistent access to food due to limited financial resources, according to the non-profit organization Feeding America.

In my state of New Mexico, nearly 40,000 people seek food assistance every week. Some 381,690 people in this state struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. The small food pantry where I volunteer provides groceries for the equivalent of 2 million meals, feeding more than 200,000 individuals, each year. The elderly and children are most at risk of going hungry due to lack of resources. One in five kids lives in a family that struggles to put food on the table. Food-insecure children are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized and are 1.4 times as likely to repeat a grade, according to Feeding America.

Why is there no public outcry about this? Why are we so complacent about the lack of one of the essentials of life -- food --  to 50 million of our citizens? Why is this situation acceptable? Why are there no protests in the streets? Why is there no congressional investigation into the suffering of millions of our people? Why is it acceptable for our government to spend billions of dollars on aid to other countries, while our own citizens go hungry? Farmers are paid not to grow food, while people suffer from lack of nutritious food. 

People receive food through a patchwork of programs, both government-funded and private. Some school districts send home backpacks of food with needy children each Friday, so the kids will have something to eat over the weekend. Some provide free or low-cost breakfasts, in addition to lunches, during the school year. Many of those who receive food assistance are the working poor, who despite working one or more low-paying jobs, are unable to afford enough food for their families.

I volunteer in the food pantry kitchen every week for 3 hours, working with other volunteers to package food for distribution. Some weeks we sort and package eggs. At other times, we bag donated bread or tortillas, mushrooms or carrots, flour or sugar. The kitchen volunteers are all women in their middle or senior years, and the work can be hard and back-breaking. One volunteer will soon turn 85 years old! But nobody complains. We are doing our small part to help feed the hungry. And we all are passionate about ending hunger in America.

But this is a problem that cannot be solved by the small, private food pantries, or even by the large food banks, which are struggling to meet the increased demand for food as donations dwindle. This problem will be solved only when we start to really care about helping our most vulnerable citizens receive the food they need. 

I take advantage of sales at local grocery stores to buy canned vegetables and soups, or dry pasta and cereal, to donate. I know that groceries are expensive, and I know that I am blessed that I don't have to worry about feeding myself and my daughter. But just think what a difference we could make if 1 million of the people in this country of 330 million bought one extra non-perishable food item and donated it to a local food bank or pantry. That would be 1 million more cans of food!  This might not solve the problem of hunger in America, but it would surely put a dent in it.

A friend, who herself sometimes needs food assistance, recently gathered her friends and family and made 117 homemade burritos with ingredients she bought herself. They then took the burritos, along with bottles of water, and handed them out to homeless people in town. Similar grassroots efforts can be found throughout the country.

In some communities, people are encouraged to plant an extra row in their gardens and donate the food to a local food bank. In other areas, volunteers 'glean' or remove the fruit and vegetables remaining after the harvest. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more people donated the extra fruits and vegetables from their home gardens? More grocery stores and restaurants now are donating food, rather than throwing it into the trash. Every donation helps.

But we need more involvement, more donations of food and money, more on-going food drives, and more volunteers. But what we really need is greater awareness of the problem of hunger in America, more people to speak out against this failure of our society, and a greater commitment on all levels to do something about it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

When I Was a Kid

How things have changed since I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Although there have been many social and technological advances over the years, things weren't all bad back then. The world was seemingly a nicer, kinder, more carrying and worry-free place.

When I was a kid:
  • I rode a bicycle without wearing a helmet. I never fell and broke a bone or smashed my head. (Today, I never ride without wearing a helmet.)
  • I roller-skated without any protective padding. The worst thing I ever suffered was a skinned knee or elbow, and maybe damaged pride if somebody saw me fall. 
  • I played outside until my mom called me to come into the house when it was getting dark. There were no fears of kids being kidnapped, or worse. 
  • I went outside without a hat, long sleeves and sunscreen. 
  • We didn't pay attention to what we ate, other than hoping it tasted good. 
  • We didn't worry about saturated fats or carbs or calories. 
  • Like us, our friends lived in two-parent families. Divorce was unheard of, or extremely rare. 
  • Our mom worked at home, cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids. She didn't get a paying job until my younger sister was in school. She was always home when we got home from school. 
  • We did things as a family. We ate dinner (called supper) together every evening. We went on vacations together. We went as a family to local parks to play and picnic. 
  • I ate lunch at home every day during elementary school. 
  • I walked to and from school by myself or with other kids. Only when I was in middle school and high school was I driven to school (it was too far to walk). I had no expectation of having a car of my own. If I needed to go some place, I asked my mom or dad to drive me, or I borrowed the family car. 
  • Our house had one bathroom (shared by five people) and one phone (black, rotary). There was no answering machine, caller I.D., or any of the other phone-related 'necessities.' 
  • We went to church every Sunday, and then my mom cooked a big, home-cooked meal. 
  • Kids had chores to do. Mine included housework, cooking and ironing. 
  • We were not allowed to spend hours every day watching television; we were told to "go outside and play." As often as not, I occupied myself by reading, something I enjoy to this day.
  • My elementary school class had a Christmas party, not a holiday party, every year. The two Jewish kids in my class did something else during party time. Both they and their parents seemingly didn't have a problem with us having a Christmas party. 
  • When we played outside in hot weather, we drank water from a rubber garden hose. We all survived. 
  • I ate (and still eat) cookie dough containing raw eggs. I never got sick. 
  • We ate cookies and pies, bread with real butter, and lots of fried foods, and we drank Kool-Aid and soda loaded with sugar. But nobody was overweight because we played outside for hours on end. 
  • Our food was natural, with no ingredients we couldn't pronounce. Food was free of artificial flavors and colors, and contained no additives or preservatives. 
  • If we goofed off or did something stupid and got injured as a result, we likely got in trouble with our parents. Mom would pull out the store-brand bottle of Mercurochrome and maybe an adhesive bandage, and off we would go. Now it's a trip to the emergency room, followed by a 10-day course of $50 antibiotics. And of course, a lawyer is consulted about blaming a property owner or school for 'negligence.' 
  • If we really misbehaved, we got spanked. This was not abuse, as many believe today. And all three of us kids turned out just fine. 
  • We said the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, including the words 'one nation, under God', and nobody objected. 
  • I had to achieve something before I could expect to receive an award. Nobody got a trophy just for showing up, so their self-esteem wouldn't be hurt. There are winners and losers in everything, something we learned as a fact of life. 
  • The thought of stealing from our friends or their parents, or anyone, never crossed our minds. 
  • We treated our parents, our friends' parents and our neighbors with respect.
Life in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't perfect. But it was a lot less complicated, and people seemed a lot less stressed about life. And that sense of family, the sense of togetherness and concern for the community that was prevalent when I was a kid, now seem lacking.

Our lives also were far less regulated than they are now, and people took responsibility for their actions and decisions. We didn't look for someone else to blame. Everything now comes with three layers of protective coverings and multiple warnings about the product's potential dangers and side-effects. Do we really need to have a warning printed on a cup of coffee to advise us that the contents are hot? We have become a nanny state, where common sense and good judgment have been replaced by government watchdogs and lawsuit-happy citizens.

How did we ever survive all the dangers of those days -- riding without a bicycle helmet, eating fried food, having no one to tell us of the horrors of eating this food or that? My grandmother lived well into her 80s and succumbed to Alzheimer's. My mother died at age 80 of Alzheimer's and shingles. My father lived to be 87.

Maybe as we age we tend to look back on the days of our youth with fondness. As kids, we were oblivious to a lot of the hardships our parents faced. So I guess singer Carly Simon got it right when she sang that "These are the good old days."