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Going Hungry in America

‘What Can We Do?’

Last in a five-part special report

Grassroots initiatives

Strategies to address the skyrocketing food and fuel prices that have deepened the hunger problem come in all shapes and sizes. New York-based City Harvest, for example, is collecting food from hotels, caterers and cafeterias and delivering small shipments with a new fleet of bicycles, freeing up the organization’s trucks for larger orders and saving fuel.

In Las Vegas, the Three Square Food Bank, started less than a year ago, taps the immense resources of the city’s casino, hotel and restaurant industry. “This is the entertainment center of the world, after all,” says CEO Julie Murray. “Las Vegas feeds 44 million meals a year to tourists. We can’t stand by and watch people in our community go hungry.” The organization, launched with the help of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, uses the buying power of the city’s huge hotels and restaurants to get bulk prices on food, which it distributes to local food pantries and meal programs.

Large or small, many of the new approaches have in common a local focus. “I used to be a big believer in the federal government, and we’re grateful for whatever help we get, but hunger is ultimately a local issue,” says David Goodman, executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which distributes 11 million pounds of food a year in Sonoma County, Calif. “Here, we have the resources to do anything and everything we need to do to be a hunger-free community. And more and more we’re turning to those local resources.” The group recently joined forces with a food manufacturing company that operates in the county, for example, to put together care packages that provide a family of four with three dinners.

Another initiative designed to tap local resources, called Vineyards Growing Veggies, encourages vineyard owners to devote a small portion of their land to producing fruit and vegetables for community food assistance programs. Sponsors hope a pilot program operating in Paso Robles on the central California coast will take root throughout the wine country.

Meanwhile, a growing number of food assistance programs are working with local farmers and restaurants to collect food that would otherwise go to waste. In New York, for example, City Harvest launched Harvest Works, a farm outreach program that buys, at discounted prices, fruit and vegetables that are too small or too flawed to go to commercial markets.

And even though Rock and Wrap It Up! has gone international, its roots are still local, planted firmly in neighborhoods, thanks to the organization’s comprehensive database of food pantries and shelters around the country. “Give me a Zip Code,” Mandelbaum says, “and I’ll tell you the name of a local nonprofit group that would be grateful for any unused food left over from an event or party.”

By far the most successful example of leveraging local resources is Stamp Out Hunger, the annual food drive organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers. Every year, postcards go into mailboxes in more than 10,000 cities and towns, inviting people to donate nonperishable food products to be collected by letter carriers on the day of the drive, which is held in May. Over its 16-year history, Stamp Out Hunger has collected more than 909 million pounds of food, making it the single largest charitable provider of food to food banks. This year’s drive weighed in at a record 73.1 million pounds.

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