Hunger in the Heartland

May 27th, 2011

I read an announcement today in our local paper about the 12th annual Blue Jean Ball, a yearly fund-raiser for our regional food bank. It’ll be happening on the river on my birthday, so yes, I am planning to attend. There will be food from 20 of our best local eateries and four of our excellent regional bands to keep things lively. Should be great fun.

We relied upon the food bank for snacks and cooking class supplies some years ago for the state funded after-school program we managed for at-risk and adjudicated teenagers. On food-run days we often encountered people we got to know who managed other charity programs, houseparents from area children’s homes, and even state workers for the various social welfare agencies in the region, gathering supplies for bags and boxes of emergency food and toiletries to give to abused women, poverty-stricken families and the recently-dispossessed. The number of people in need goes up every year, even as the U.S. government has been gouging necessary aid like food stamps and WIC so they can keep on lowering taxes on billionaires in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s.

I live in a region of the country – southern Appalachia – that is labeled “Economically Depressed” even in the best of times for the rest of the nation. Our only decent-sized city (Asheville) ranks 7th in the nation for percentage of the population going hungry. The surrounding, mostly rural counties are much worse off, and the situation has been deteriorating steeply since 2007.

The World Hunger Education Service provides an overview of statistics from 2008, including an increase in “food insecure” households in the U.S. from 15.8 million in 2007 to 17 million in 2008. They also do a good job of tying this increase directly to the increase in poverty over that year and every year since. Feeding America conducted a hunger study in 2010 showing a 46% increase in hunger in America since 2006. Its network of food banks across the country is feeding an average of 1 million MORE people a week than in 2006, and it’s not slowing down as the price of food skyrockets along with the cost of fuel.

The New York Times reported in 2009 that hunger was at a 14-year high, an increase over those years of 13 million people, putting their figure from the USDA at 49 million American citizens without consistent access to food. Given the deep cuts in state and federal support for food programs this year as Republicans strive to make good on their campaign promises to their corporate sponsors, everyone paying attention is expecting the 2011 numbers to be much higher.

We who grow, lovingly tend and harvest, then faithfully preserve as much of our family’s food supply as we possibly can tend to be more aware of some of the issues involved in rampant hunger outside the D.C. beltway, in ways politicians just can’t match. We are known to often give a lot of our own produce away, trade it with others so we’ve got more variety, and don’t mind sharing what we’ve got with friends and neighbors. I’ve been known to donate boxes of squash and peppers to the food bank, and helped to establish a “shares” food program geared for a rural county where almost everybody’s growing a garden and doesn’t mind planting a little extra for free seeds and feeding the hungry.

I urge all my readers to check in with their local and regional food banks, see how they can contribute to the good efforts, either in produce, time or money. Food banks need all the help they can get, so if your homestead is big enough to be growing some acreage in food crops, most food banks will happily organize teams of volunteers to glean your fields when you’re done harvesting. Just get them to sign a liability waver (in case somebody steps on a rusty nail or something). They will gladly take your leavings and give them to people in need. Heck, you could mention this sort of thing to your farming neighbors next time you have a get-together, see how many will join the effort. Too much is wasted in this country, too many people go hungry.

We can all be part of the answer to that pressing issue.

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