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Going Hungry in America

‘What Can We Do?’

Last in a five-part special report

In Detroit, amateur gardeners plant seeds and tend vegetable gardens in vacant lots and the yards of foreclosed and boarded-up houses—nurturing new hope for some of the city’s poorest residents. The program they are taking part in, run by a nonprofit organization called Urban Farming, takes advantage of unused property and even rooftops to grow food, which is then donated to local food banks and meal programs.

“We started with three gardens in 2005. This year we’re up to 500 in Detroit alone,” says Taja Sevelle, the founder and executive director of Urban Farming, which has recently expanded to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis and other cities.

Meanwhile, in low-income communities of the South Bronx, where fresh produce was once almost impossible to find, farmers’ markets now flourish, thanks in part to a program that provides the markets with wireless stations that can swipe cards from the food stamp program. The New York City health department recently pitched in by giving eligible residents $2 worth of Health Bucks, which they can use to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

In Philadelphia, inmates at a correctional facility grow seedlings that volunteer gardeners then transplant in 30 community gardens throughout the city. Produce from the gardens goes to local churches, community and senior centers, and low-income apartment complexes. Philly’s City Harvest program, a collaborative effort that includes the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society and SHARE, a self-help food distribution network, donated 12,000 pounds of food last year and hopes to reach 15,000 this year.

Soaring food and energy prices have put millions more Americans at risk of going hungry. But as these examples illustrate, the crisis has also generated an inspiring array of innovative approaches to fighting hunger and has rallied hundreds of thousands of new volunteers to the cause.

Urban Farming’s Sevelle, a singer and songwriter, was recording an album in Detroit when she became aware of the thousands of vacant lots and foreclosed homes blighting the city—and the desperate plight of many of its poorest people. “Detroit had 17,000 acres of unused land, and I thought, why not plant food?” says Sevelle, who was inspired by the victory gardens planted during World War II. Three years later, the nonprofit she founded serves 300,000 people in cities around the country.

Syd Mandelbaum, a research scientist and community activist, saw another wasted resource: catered food that goes unused at rock concerts and other large events. He founded Rock and Wrap It Up!, which collects the excess food and donates it to local food banks and soup kitchens. This year, as it has done for more than a decade, Mandelbaum’s organization collected and donated unused food from events at the Republican and Democratic national conventions through an initiative called “Everybody Wins on Election Night.”

And in June, the nonprofit group won a political victory of its own with the swift passage of landmark legislation it championed: the Federal Food Donation Act of 2008. The legislation encourages all government contracts over $25,000 that include the provision or sale of food to donate what isn’t used to local nonprofit groups that feed the hungry. Mandelbaum estimates that the new law could result in 5 million to 10 million additional meals at soup kitchens and other assistance programs around the country.

“We’re now approaching state governments to do the same,” he says, “which will have an even bigger impact than the federal program.”

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