March is a grand month! It officially heralds in long-awaited spring! We celebrate Women’s History Month, and, if you read the Timberjay, you know that it is also Minnesota FoodShare Month. Hearing about our local food shelves in Tower, Cook and Ely, resurrected fond memories of my first encounter with one of the first food banks in the country, over 40 years ago in Tucson, Ariz. Without realizing it then, I was being thrust into the ‘fight to end hunger’.
In 2019, an estimated 40 million Americans still face “food insecurity”. A network of food banks remain essential to our nation’s social safety net!
Too young to fully grasp what was in store for me, I assumed the role of director of the Tucson Community Food Bank. In the early 1970s, the idea that the community should accept the task of feeding its hungry citizens was just that, an “idea”. At that time, churches were bearing the mantle of “helping the needy.” The government had assumed some responsibility to feed the hungry beginning in the 1930s when the Great Depression drove millions of Americans into poverty. Food stamps, created out of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” became the answer to a growing crisis. They provided support for people’s most basic needs while the nation’s economy recovered and finally got folks back to work.
After 1943, the Food Stamp Program received intermittent funding until the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Impacted by each new swing of the political pendulum, and guided by strict eligibility requirements, there have always been many who do not qualify. The federal Office of Management and Budget estimates that some 40-percent of households identified as “food insecure” currently do not receive federal food assistance. That’s why local food shelves, along with other sources of emergency food aid, continue to play a key role to help fill the household food gap.
During the 1960s, southwestern states became meccas for unemployed and homeless youth. It wasn’t hard to find a place to live, even if it meant just pitching a tent, but to reliably feed oneself was a different matter. Jobs were scarce and wages were low. Churches responded as best they could to this unpredicted influx of newcomers. The increase in requests for food assistance was depleting resources intended for established residents. To cope with this challenge, the default solution became “one-way bus tickets out of town,” but many knew there had to be a better way. The churches sent out an S.O.S. A task force of community “movers and shakers”, government officials and businesses executives, came together to determine what could be done.
From those meetings came the blueprint for our present-day network of regional and local food banks working with larger purchasing and distribution systems. Food and cash donations from individuals and organizations would become the main source of support. But corporate food producers were also tapped for goods that were being discarded as “waste,” unsuitable for public sale due to size, shape or damaged packaging. Corporations were pleased to contribute to this rapidly developing network of emergency food outlets springing up across the country.
According to the official St. Louis County website, its population hovers just under 200,000 with a poverty rate of 15.5-percent. That’s roughly 31,000 residents living on less than $1,041 per month. Yes, hunger still persists. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) replaced Food Stamps in 2008. It’s now the federal government’s main response to hunger in the U.S. For those who qualify, the average SNAP benefit is $192 per person per month, far below what is needed by most households to meet basic nutritional needs, even by the most frugal standards. So how do people manage?
To find out, I met with Cook Area Food Shelf coordinator, Cleo Cottrell, one of several dedicated volunteers, who have kept this service active since its start-up in 1994. She informed me that they service 80-100 people each month, providing a nutritionally balanced supply of food suited for the needs of each recipient. While we toured the facility, Cleo explained the stream of activity required to maintain an operation of this size. Trained and well-coordinated volunteers purchase, inventory, and stock food and supplies, all in preparation to fill and distribute food boxes on the third Wednesday of each month. She also described some of the predicaments that commonly lead to “food insecurity”— job loss, illness, car repairs, accidental catastrophe, natural disasters, or other events that can unexpectedly take a bite out of the household budget.
Government-funded and independent non-profit programs work in partnership providing a “social safety net” in these times of need. Services such as Meals on Wheels, congregate senior dining, and Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors (NAPS), are examples of federally-funded services available to low-income elders. The Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program provides food assistance to pregnant and breast-feeding moms and their children. Subsidies to schools make free and reduced-cost meals available to income-eligible students. Organizations like food shelves, the Salvation Army and Ruby’s Pantry utilize varied methods to reach people who are not eligible for government assistance or for whom the assistance is just not enough. It’s clear to me now how important these efforts to reduce hunger have become, but my next question is this. Are we winning that “fight to end hunger”?
All signs say, “No.” We’ve got the “forty million people living with food insecurity.” Census data indicates “one in five children in America live in poverty.” Labor reports describe many working more than full-time, some at two and three jobs, and still qualifying for government assistance! And with obesity on the rise, we know that cheaper food is not always healthy food. Doesn’t look like we’re fixing the problem. And we sure hope we’re not making it worse!
Good news is, we’ve started looking beyond “quantity” and are beginning to focus on “quality” as well. We’re being encouraged to eat at home, to eat fresher, and avoid processed foods, plant a household or community garden, and support local farmers markets. All these and others present an array of healthy benefits. In addition, there are people studying the root causes of hunger and advocating for government policy changes designed to improve nutrition and health. Economists are addressing income inequalities, the need to raise minimum wage requirements and lower prescription drug prices to free up more money in the household budget for food. Others are showing us how “food issues” relate to even broader issues like climate change and global poverty. To confront big issues we need bold ideas, courage, faith and commitment! All signs say, “Yes! We’ve got it!”
I end this story with thanks to all the people who are already engaged, working tirelessly to address hunger in our communities. To volunteers, donors and advocates, thank you for leading our way into the future! And special thanks to Cleo Cottrell for spending time, offering information and insights for this article. You are an inspiration!