Monday morning at the Food Bank, I took a break from scooping hot dogs to look across the volunteer room. At my end were about 15 people, average age probably 75, who were packing those wieners into bags for distribution to food pantries throughout the 32 counties we serve.
In three hours, we packed about a ton of hot dogs.
Down at the other end of the room, a larger group, a mix of kids and adults, were filling plastic bags with an assortment of food to go into the buddy packs that are handed out in schools to feed children who otherwise would go hungry over the weekends. Every pack contains protein, energy bars, grain and canned fruit.
The Food Bank supplies 6,700 buddy packs each week to 130 schools.
Business is booming at the Food Bank. We’re on track to give away more than 30 million pounds of food this year. The pantries that serve as retail outlets are serving more than 117,000 people a month so far in 2013. Those numbers are up substantially from 2012.
(I’m using the first person plural because I’m both a volunteer – one of nearly 25,000 so far this year – and a member of the board of what is formally the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri.)
If the good news is that we’re providing so much food, the bad news is that there are so many hungry people in the richest country in the most prosperous era of human history. The Food Bank’s professional staff calculates that about one of every six people in our service area face times when they don’t know where the next meal is coming from. That’s more than 120,000 people.
Half the public school students in our 32 counties are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and so are likely to need a weekend meal or three. In Columbia Public Schools alone, 38 percent of the 18,000-plus pupils are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
The buddy pack program reaches only about one of every eight of those children.
The nation’s weak economy is making the situation worse. An Associated Press article in Tuesday’s Missourian reported that the unemployment rate for the lowest-income families is above 20 percent. Nearly all the gains from the economy’s slow recovery have gone to those at the top, while the great majority of us are actually worse off than we were five years ago. The Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that Missouri was one of only two states in which median household income declined last year.
In June, 25,266 people were officially unemployed in the Food Bank’s service area. Many more were underemployed.
So the Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a farm bill because the proposed $20 billion cut in the food stamp program wasn’t big enough. They live in a world different from ours.
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to spend a morning stocking shelves at the food pantry on Big Bear Boulevard. The last week of the month is especially busy, because many families have used up their inadequate allotment of food stamps before they run out of month.
The customers that day looked a lot like you and me, and our down-on-their-luck neighbors. There were old folks, of course, a good many mothers with young children, a scattering of people dressed for their low-paying jobs. Vicky Hartzler, our right-wing Republican representative in Congress, who wants to tighten eligibility for food stamps, wasn’t there.
It’s no exaggeration, I think, to describe hunger in America as a humanitarian crisis. The trouble is that it’s a constant crisis, not the sort of sudden emergency that captures attention and motivates response as, for example, does flooding in Colorado or civil war in Syria.
Instead, what’s happening here is quiet, almost invisible, easy to overlook. “Food insecurity” is the term the professionals use. It’s entangled with economic insecurity, which in turn arises from a toxic mix of human frailty and institutional failure.
Plenty of people smarter than I am have grappled in vain with the causes and unsuccessfully sought solutions to the combined problems that produce poverty and hunger. The United Way and the Food Bank are joining the search. In the St. Louis area, a group of anti-poverty agencies are declaring Oct. 11-18 Hunger Awareness Week.
Meanwhile, we package hot dogs and fill buddy packs. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.