A station wagon pulled into our driveway one spring day back in the early 1950s. Two Catholic nuns emerged in their traditional black and white habits. They pulled a large box out of the back of their vehicle and together lugged it up the steps to our front door. It was a donation from the local food pantry – several cases of canned Chicken a la King.
After WWII, my dad, a decommissioned first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, had landed a job with Republic Aviation Corp. making jets for the U.S. Air Force. It was a union shop and in the early 1950s workers at the plant walked out on strike demanding fairer compensation. He’d been out of work for a few months and our family of six was feeling the pinch. I remember my mom was grateful for the food, but embarrassed by being considered a ‘charity case.’
A growing national problem
In the ensuing two decades the government, recognizing hunger to be a national problem, launched a strong bipartisan War on Poverty. That focus made great federal strides in eradicating much of America’s hunger. But since then, unfortunately, we have slid backwards. Today, in 2018, it is estimated that there are 49 million U.S. citizens who are “food insecure” (Statistics: United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, and Bread for the World).
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How is that possible in this "richest country in the world"? Most of it can be explained by the interplay between the many and competing needs encountered by America’s poor families.
Families living below the poverty line see most of their limited income swallowed by housing costs. Having a place to live – with all the attendant utility and insurance costs – often takes precedence over nutritional needs. Homelessness and exorbitant rents for substandard housing lie at the root of much of the country’s hunger. When one also considers low and stagnant wages, it becomes almost impossible for poor families to balance it all: housing, health insurance, transportation and food needs.
The processing of food, and the staggering costs of refrigerating and transporting food across the country rather than making regions more self-reliant, also increase food costs.
The country’s poorest families are the most vulnerable. Inner-city “food deserts” – areas where people must travel long distances to reach stores where they can buy healthy food at reasonable prices – spring up when food stores discover that there are greater profits to be made outside of economically challenged urban areas. Durham has its share of these.
Enter the CROP Hunger Walk
Durham’s 44th annual CROP Hunger Walk (www.crophungerwalk.org/durhamnc) will be held Sunday, March 25. Since 1975, when the event was inaugurated, the Durham community has raised more than $4 million for hungry people.
The Walk’s national sponsor, Church World Service, finances small community projects designed to alleviate hunger in some of the most vulnerable populations around the world. It recognizes, too, that America has a vulnerable population, and so 25 percent of donations raised (more than $1 million each year) help 12 of Durham’s hunger-fighting agencies such as Durham Urban Ministries, Meals on Wheels, Families Moving Forward, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC, and the “Double Bucks” program – a new program that doubles the value of SNAP benefits at local Farmers Markets.
Charity is not enough
The combined efforts of Durham’s many non-profit agencies, critically needed in addressing the problem of hunger, constitute only a “stop-gap” measure. More than ever, the federal government needs to step up, not cut back, its efforts to help feed America’s hungry.
To understand the scale of the help needed, the national advocacy group, Bread for the World, estimates that were the government to cut their funding for poverty relief and hunger-fighting programs by a mere 5 percent, all charities, pantries and food banks would have to double their human and capital resources and their outreach to meet the shortfall. For agencies already stretched to the limit, that would be asking the impossible.
But there are solutions. Our country eradicated hunger in the 1970s, and we can do it again today. It will take a national examination of conscience and a hard look at our budget priorities. If we can spend $1.7 trillion on a new fleet of F-35 jets, and $1 trillion to up-grade our nuclear bomb arsenal, then we ought to be able to feed our hungry. It’s been slowly dawning upon us that having 49 million Americans lacking food security is as destabilizing and threatening to our country as lacking military security.
Ending hunger is everyone’s business – governments, corporations, academia, charities, faith congregations, and individuals. The community of Durham will proclaim that loudly when, 1,500 to 2,000 strong, we pound the pavement in the five-mile CROP Hunger Walk on Sunday, March 25.