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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.