In a world of constant news events, chronic issues struggle for attention. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its most recent report on food insecurity in America. North Carolina was reminded again of the sad reality that 1 in 6 of our neighbors struggle to find enough to eat each month. Sadder still, 1 in 4 children lack adequate nutrition, too. Hardly breaking news, but a deep tragedy all the same.
Again North Carolina was among the five worst states for hunger levels among both adults and children at 17.3 percent – nearly 650,000 of us. That left us behind Arkansas, Mississippi and just below Texas – nothing like the sort of 10 Best lists that we are so accustomed to.
Regardless of political views, most would agree that long-term answers to hunger lie in education and jobs. Those of us engaged in hunger charities long for the day when everyone is able to obtain enough for themselves and their families to eat. But in the meantime, it is vital that all of us help feed those in need.
Feeding America’s recent Hunger in America Study reported that the seven member food banks in North Carolina served about 1.4 million people in 2013. The weekly count was about 160,000 individuals. A vivid way to reflect that would be to envision feeding almost every resident of Asheville, Chapel Hill and Elizabeth City once a week. Unfortunately, the report also said that among our partner food programs that turned away clients, 36 percent did so because they ran out of food.
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The study also provides some interesting profiles of the people served by our state’s food banks. Almost 20 percent of the clients served are seniors, aged 60 and over. An estimated 22 percent of the households served have a member who served in the military. A shocking 6 percent have a member currently serving. A significant trend in our partner food pantries is the growth in ones serving military communities and college campuses.
Not surprisingly many of the client households had someone experiencing health problems. About 65 percent had a household member with high blood pressure; 37 percent someone with diabetes. It is notable that both of these conditions are commonly associated with poor nutrition.
Sometimes it is easy to see a hungry person as a stereotype: homeless, jobless, an alcoholic or drug addict. What is not as easy to see is that a real person in need may be right under your nose. The family of someone at your child’s school. The person laid off last month at your office. The person waiting in line at the gas station or even the grocery store.
Some have attended college. Many client households include an employed person. A truer stereotype of a hungry person would be a single mother of two, working two jobs and still not able to provide sufficient food.
One resounding picture came through about the client households we serve. They have developed remarkable skills at making spending tradeoffs and coping strategies. In the past year:
• 73 percent had to choose between paying for food or paying for medical care or medicine.
• 75 percent had to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities.
• 71 percent had to choose between paying for food or paying for transportation.
• 61 percent had to choose between paying for food or paying for housing.
Most of us would agree that the level of food insecurity in our state is not acceptable. It costs us dearly in health care expenses. It costs our schools and our children dearly, robbing them of the opportunity to grow and learn. It robs us all of the sense that all is well in our state and our neighborhoods.
Take on the challenge of doing something about hunger in your community. Donate to a food bank or one of our feeding partners in your area. Encourage your employer to do the same. Organize your colleagues at work, school or church to volunteer at a local food bank.
Neither government nor charities can do it all. You can’t do it all, either, but you can make a difference in the lives of someone near you. For their sake and yours, help them.
Alan Briggs is executive director of the N.C. Association of Food Banks.