Guest editorial: Hunger is nearby
Even with the historic election of the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, news of the economic crisis has dominated the media in recent months. Bank bailouts and the recent G20 conference have Americans wondering what their fiscal future holds. In many urban areas, the aftershock of the crisis shows through the rising costs of food and the loss of jobs in the financial sector. In suburban areas, many are losing their homes to foreclosure.
While these issues are a cause for concern, the growing number of hungry and impoverished Americans is often overlooked. Food banks and pantries usually cope very well with their needs, but in this environment of economic insecurity, they struggle to continue their much-needed service.
Food banks nationwide are seeing fewer donations. With the rise in food prices, more families are enduring hardship. Also, natural disasters in certain areas of the country have had an effect on the public's food consumption. It began with the global food crisis, which meant the rise in price of basic foods. Then came the string of storms affecting the South, Southeast and parts of the Midwest. People lost their food due to power outages and in some cases, their homes due to storm damage. Finally, the financial crisis has cost many their jobs and ability to provide for their families.
Food banks are seeing a significant increase in clients. According to the Food Bank of New York City's website, "Already, there are 1.3 million New Yorkers â mostly women, children, seniors, working poor and people with disabilities â relying on food pantries and soup kitchens for their next meal. Recent research shows that 20 percent of New Yorkers would not be able to afford food immediately after losing their household income." With such alarming statistics, it is clear that food banks will be seeing more clients.
In states like Montana, more grandparents are raising children and the financial crisis for them has been especially hard. "We've noticed an increasing number," said Harold Spilde of FISH, the Christian food bank. "They used to be able to get by themselves, but now they're getting strapped because they're raising grandchildren as well."
While food banks are facing the harsh reality that less food will be donated, certain states are finding innovative ways to make up for it. State-run programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the newly renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have been pushed harder than usual by food banks. "We've seen that food banks are just being overrun," said Hank Hudson, administrator of the health department's Human and Community Services Division in Helena. "We're telling people that food stamps should be a routine monthly supplement to their nutritional budget while the food banks should be used for emergencies."
At the Food Bank of New York City, new initiatives including Financial Empowerment, Direct Service, and Education & Nutrition Programs are raising clients' awareness about other assistance. It includes the Free Tax Assistance Program, which last year helped New Yorkers obtain more than $103 million in tax credits, tax returns and stimulus payments â money everyone will be counting on again this spring; and the Food Stamp Prescreening & Outreach Program, which helps New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods access federal aid they are entitled to in more than 200 locations in low income neighborhoods.
A reason for the accelerated growth of these programs is that the financial crisis is forcing many people, for the first time in their lives, to look for new ways to put food on the table. They might not be aware of available programs. "Most of the people who come in here are working families," said Karla Ekblad of the Public Assistance Office in Great Falls. "They're no different from you and me except that they make a few less bucks," she said. "They're still human beings, and they're hurting in this economy."
While agencies are doing their best to find alternative solutions for those hurt by the crisis, the fortunate should keep the less fortunate in their thoughts. We hope those that can give a little more will continue to donate and inspire others to give more of themselves in the midst of these wearisome times.
Joel Malebranche and Ernest Wilson answer the call of hunger for WHY's (World Hunger Year) National Hunger Hotline. Founded in 1975, WHY is a leader in the fight against hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.