More mouths to feed: ‘Food insecurity’ grows to record numbers

29 Nov

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother" (1936)

One of the benefits for which we can give thanks this year is that a growing number of signs say we’re pulling out of our deep economic recession.

But it’s no secret that recovery is a slow train coming for millions of Americans. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that record numbers of people in the U.S. had trouble getting enough food in 2008.

“Seventeen million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure,” meaning they “lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That’s an increase of more than 1.5 million homes in one year and the highest figure since such statistics started in 1995.

Tennessee’s food insecurity for 2008 was slightly below the national average, at 13.5 percent of households. But if history is any guide, the Appalachian counties are likely to show above-average rates when detailed figures are released in January. Poverty is typically more prevalent in Appalachia than in other regions, and the lack of enough resources to obtain basic needs is “the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Children are especially vulnerable. Virtually every measure of poverty or food insecurity reveals that children fare worse than adults. For instance, while Tennessee’s overall food insecurity rate in 2007 was 12.8 percent, the rate was 20.5 percent among children. The general poverty rate was 14.8 percent; for children it was 20.2 percent.

In the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, 52 percent of schoolchildren were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2008, according to the Tennessee State Report Card. That is, more than 37,000 schoolchildren were eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or other public assistance.

Of the 49.1 million people in the U.S. who lived in food-insecure households in 2008, more than one-third – 16.7 million – were children.

Such numbers are almost overwhelming, obviously too big for even the most generous individual to make a dent. The good news is that we have ways to work together to feed neighbors in need.

In this area, more than 200 nonprofit organizations work with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. This nonprofit clearinghouse, part of a nationwide network of food banks known as Feeding America, gathers food in bulk directly from manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – which helps keep costs down – and distributes it to congregations, food pantries and other nonprofits. Second Harvest distributed 6.5 million tons of food last year.

The organization itself isn’t faith based, but 75 percent of the organizations that work with it are, according to Communications Director Kathy Smith. The biggest partners for Second Harvest in at least six of the region’s eight counties are churches or church-related ministries.

Certainly we’re in the best season for food banks. The message of Thanksgiving and the warmth of Christmastime apparently make people feel more generous than other times of the year. Just this week, listeners of WCQR, a Christian radio station, donated $27,000 to Second Harvest in one of several food drives this season.

Still, the gap between supply and need is never far away.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the increased need at this point,” Smith reported on Wednesday. “But it appears to be an ever-growing need. Donations are up compared to last year, but not significantly. The food is going out the door as fast as it comes in.”

Food banks like Second Harvest welcome and rely on the extra efforts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But then comes January. Then February, March and April. The Second Harvest Web site lists at least 17 events in November and December. But between January and April 2010? Five.

The need for food doesn’t end when the holidays are over and, as the USDA reports, more Americans are hungry now than in any recent time.

But individuals, families and small groups can help feed hungry people year-round.

“They can organize food drives through their churches, businesses or in their neighborhoods,” Smith suggested. “They can consider holding a fundraising drive on our behalf, like a dinner. And of course they can volunteer with Second Harvest. We have various opportunities through the year.”

And of course, we can donate money. The Web sites for Second Harvest  and Feeding America even include secure links for making donations online.

That’s something to chew on, all year long.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 Nov 2009.

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