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‘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.”

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.

Tall orders

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.