When we think of hungry people, we tend to picture starving children in Third World countries with distended bellies and sticklike bodies. For most of us, it is hard to realize that right here in the United States nearly 32 million Americans go to bed hungry. Nearly 5.5 million of these are children under the age of 12.
Why, in a land that produces enough food to feed its people as well as people in many other countries, are we faced with the reality of hungry Americans?
The causes of hunger in today’s America are very different from those of a decade ago. While agricultural technology (the ability to plant, grow, and harvest stronger, more nourishing, and more abundant crops) has advanced, hunger persists because of poverty.
The ability to produce a sufficient food supply does not mean a nation will eliminate hunger, according to Peter Hendry, former editor of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s journal. In the United States, for example, where surpluses are so large that farmers are paid to produce less, the government must provide food stamps each month to more than 19 million people so they can get food.
When we think of the hungry in America, we may picture a homeless person rummaging through garbage cans for food. Do people go hungry because they are out of work and can’t afford to buy food? Mike Firman, executive director of the Golden Harvest Food Bank, says that’s not accurate. Hungry people are usually not those who are on welfare. They are the working poor.
Who Are the Working Poor?
“A working-poor family can be described as a family that earns a little more than $10,000 a year,” says Firman. “About half of this money will go for rent. The working poor have jobs that do not provide health insurance, and a good portion of the remainder of the paycheck goes for utilities and living expenses such as gas for the car and medical bills.”
Sandra is one of the working poor. A single mother of two small children, Sandra works as a waitress. Her salary is less than minimum wage. Part of her paycheck goes for rent, electricity, and heat. She has no car and depends on city buses to get to and from work. The rest of her paycheck goes for day care for her children so she can work. There is very little money left for food.
“At the beginning of the month, I can usually buy milk for the children,” says Sandra. “But by the last week, we’re down to drinking water or Kool-Aid with meals. I usually try to serve meat two or three times a week, but I have to make my food dollars stretch with dried beans and peas, rice and gravy, and hot dogs and bologna. Fresh fruit is out as are most desserts….”
Sandra regrets not being able to give her children an occasional treat to eat. Like all children, they have favorite foods, which are usually too expensive for her to buy. “It’s tough living on such a tight budget that you can’t ever afford treats.”
Stretching the Food Dollar
Sandra, like many of the working poor, is finding stretching the food dollar even tougher these days. As a waitress, she relies on tips for some of her income. As times become tougher, tips become smaller. Recently she has had to start depending on food banks to get her family through the month.
Firman has seen a large increase in the numbers of families becoming dependent on food banks and soup kitchens. His organization saw a 59 percent increase in the numbers of individuals served by food banks in one year.
How Can You Help?
For a long time, many Americans thought that it was someone else’s responsibility to feed the hungry. No longer. Now there are many groups that are addressing the needs of the hungry in the United States. As needs have increased, so have the numbers of volunteers working to combat hunger. Here are some ways you help:
1. Start a food drive in your neighborhood. Firman’s children (ages 6 and 7) spent a weekend collecting food donated by their neighbors. The children went door-to-door and collected about 25 pounds of canned goods to give to their local food bank.
2. Start an emergency food pantry through your church, social club, or civic group.
3. Work with other groups such as youth clubs to collect food for local food banks.
4. Volunteer your time to help label and sort cans for distribution to the hungry.
5. Talk to local food companies to see what they do with the food they don’t use. Sometimes canned food that simply has a crooked label will be discarded. Encourage food companies to donate these cans to local food banks, and volunteer to pick up and deliver this food.
6. Many food banks have summer programs in which young people work in teams to sort, label, and distribute food that has been donated by food companies.
7. Check with local restaurants to see if they will give leftover food to soup kitchens.
8. Work with local chefs to develop charity events to collect donated money for food banks.
9. Some food banks have a garden club. If you harvest extra food from your garden, they will pick it up.
There are lots of creative thinkers out there. Here are some fund-raising projects that have been successful:
1. Dine Out — The Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association of Memphis, Tennessee, held a Dining Dividends Day. Sixty-eight restaurants agreed to donate 10 percent of their profits to the group’s meals-for-seniors program. When people heard about the program, restaurants were filled with patrons, some of whom waited more than an hour. The program made $20,000.
2. Go Cookin’ — Meals on Wheels of Elberton, Georgia, developed a “Remember When” cookbook that featured more than 500 recipes. In the first two months of the project, 350 cookbooks were sold at $9 each. Half of this money went to buy food for the Meals on Wheels Program.
Many Americans now realize that to feed the hungry requires effort. And many are willing to volunteer to do just that. The feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping others is also nourishing.