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Going Hungry in America

‘What Can We Do?’

Last in a five-part special report

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Organizations that operate food assistance programs have always depended on local support, and many of them report that, even in the current economic downturn, the response from volunteers has been tremendous. “We’re feeding 12,000 more people this year than last year, and the only reason we’ve been able to keep up is because donations were up from individuals, foundations, corporate donors, across the board,” says Kristin Valentine, director of development for Bread for the City, in Washington. “It’s been very gratifying.”

Charitable donations will continue to be the lifeblood of food banks and soup kitchens. “When I go out and give talks to the local community, my message is simple,” says Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “I ask people to give more of their time, more of their money, more of their food.”

But as crucial as donations of all kinds are to food banks and meal programs, they don’t address the myriad root causes of hunger—including lack of education and inadequate health care. Another is poverty, says Dave Krepcho, the executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. To address that issue, “we need visionary work done at the national level, really taking a hard look at living wages,” Krepcho says. “More and more of the people we see—about 40 percent of those who receive emergency food from us right now—are the working poor. These are people who work full time and still can’t make ends meet. That has to change if we are to solve the problem of hunger in this country.”

To rein in rising food prices, farmers say the nation needs to address the energy crisis. “Rising energy prices are the main reason we’ve seen such a dramatic jump in the cost of food,” says Tom Buis, the president of the National Farmers Union. “The average food item travels 1,300 miles from farm to fork. Agriculture itself is a very energy-intensive industry. Finding renewable alternatives to oil—wind, biofuels, solar power—is essential to keeping food prices down.” Programs that connect consumers with local farmers and other foodmakers, such as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, can also go a long way toward reducing the energy used to get food from field to table.

Bringing all of the various efforts together is another challenge. “One of the things we lack is a coordinated effort to address hunger,” says U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “What we need is a food and nutrition czar in the federal government to coordinate all the agencies. We need somebody dedicated to ending hunger, period.”

Addressing the underlying causes is a tall order, by any measure. Still, activists insist it’s the only way to eradicate hunger in America. “A lot of people just shake their heads and say, ‘What can we do?’ ” Bolling says. “Our greatest challenge is to move beyond cynicism, to convince ourselves that we can end hunger if we set our minds to it.”

The first step is deciding once and for all that hunger in America is unacceptable. “People are in need either because of bad decisions they made along the way or because of circumstances beyond their control,” says Goodman of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. “Either way, hunger can’t be the price they pay.”

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

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