Hunger Does Not Discriminate

Recently, the nation observed National Hunger Awareness Day. The Food Bank of Western Mass. — the region’s hub of public emergency and privately donated foods — and local partners hosted public education events. This year’s theme was The Face of Hunger May Surprise You, and it was quite appropriate.

That’s because it regularly surprises me. Last month, a corporate volunteer at our 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Hatfield shared with me that when she was a child, her mom struggled to put food on the table. Or, I’ll never forget the time a successful businessman approached me after a presentation at a local civic club to confess that his wife secretly collected food stamps after he was laid off from work early in their marriage.

More and more Americans are vulnerable to income and, in turn, food insecurity due to job insecurity, stagnant wages relative to the rising cost of living, high levels of debt, divorce, or a sudden accident. One out of three households that receive food from the Food Bank has at least one working adult. Hunger does not discriminate.

The term “hunger” — the recurrent and involuntary access to food due to lack of resources — conjures up images of starving children in the Third World. Yet, 10 million people in the United States experienced “very low food security” in 2005 according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last fall. Hunger, simply put, has become a permanent feature in United States, despite our being one of the richest and most productive countries on the planet. Worse still, another 17 million people are food-insecure — at risk of hunger due to difficulties putting adequate food on the table on any given day.

The good news is that 3 million fewer people were food-insecure nationally in 2005. The bad news is that food insecurity has increased in many high-cost states like Massachusetts. This seemingly intractable feature of our societal landscape is both an urban and rural phenomenon.

Chronic food insecurity is on the rise as evidenced by a growing demand for emergency food from the Food Bank. Last year, almost 6 million pounds of food — or approximately 4.5 million meals — went to 400 frontline nonprofit programs: food pantries, meal sites, shelters, day care centers, after-school programs, and councils on aging. Half of this food travels to Hampden County.

Our economic system may not ensure that everyone is guaranteed adequate food. Our society should. It’s the right thing to do on moral and economic grounds. We know that food insecurity is a leading cause of poor health and educational achievement among children. Healthier, well-fed families are more productive on the job and at home.

The Food Bank is committed to making food available to those who need it now. We are equally committed to reducing the need for emergency food tomorrow. To do this, the public must embrace public policy that can achieve this end. Right now, Congress is considering the Feeding America’s Families Act (H.R. 2129), the nutrition title in the U.S. farm bill. Co-sponsored by Mass. Rep. Jim McGovern, this act, if approved, will improve access to food stamps and raise the minimum monthly household benefit level from $10 to $32, among other things. The unrealistic $10 benefit level was set decades ago, and today, the average benefit equals one dollar per person, per meal.

Just as food stamps assist families with accessing food by supplementing earned income, so, too, public policy can improve the quality of food available and the choices that families make about the food that they consume. Improved public health will reduce public costs elsewhere. On Beacon Hill, the Legislature is considering Protect our Children’s Health: An Act to Promote Proper School Nutrition (H.B. 2168). Soda and junk food are feeding an epidemic of obesity and diabetes among our children. This bill will require public schools to provide nutritious food options to help children learn good eating habits and reduce the risk of health problems. Supporting these two public policies are crucial steps to ensuring a hunger-free Western Mass.

Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Mass Inc.; (413) 247-0312.