Hunger plagues the land of plenty

A recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that 49 million people in American households - one in six - went hungry or had insufficient food at some point last year.

Yes, in this land of plenty there are children and adults going to bed each night with empty stomachs.

It’s a national tragedy.

Unfortunately, hunger is no stranger to the South Sound community.

Last week hundreds of area residents lined up outside the Thurston County Food Bank to pick up a box of food so they could enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. Robert Coit, executive director of the Food Bank, said the staff and volunteers distributed 2,055 baskets to feed 7,082 people – an increase of 15 percent over last year.

And that’s just one food bank. Rochester, Yelm, Tenino and other South Sound food banks were equally generous with residents in their communities.

Then there were an estimated 1,400 Thanksgiving meals served by Barb’s Family and Friends, a group of South Sound residents who have offered holiday meals to hungry and lonely residents for the last 40 years. “If you were hungry, you were invited to come,” said Rodney O’Neill who is carrying on the holiday meal tradition started by his late mother, Barb. He attributed the large turnout to the downturn in the economy and more people stretching their food dollars.

Coit said the Food Bank is serving about 20 percent more people today than a year ago. The number of food drives is about the same as a year ago, but the amount of food collected in those drives is down sharply. Much of the slack is being made up by people making financial donations to the Food Bank, he said.

Coit said the economy is putting people in the food bank line who have never been there before. A recent survey of clients showed 10 percent of the clients were first-time Food Bank patrons — a number Coit expects to increase. “It’s a fragile system,” Coit said. “It’s a good system, but it’s fragile, and it’s stretched to capacity.”

And hunger is not a once-a-year issue at Thanksgiving.

Half the Food Bank clients are children, Coit said. Many are the sons and daughters of working parents — parents whose jobs don’t pay a living wage. This community simply mirrors the national picture.

The Department of Agriculture hunger report showed the highest number of hungry Americans since the government began tracking the problem in 1995. The biggest increases were among households with children and people who were hungry more often.

“This is a dramatic and alarming increase,” said Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which studies policies affecting the poor. “It confirms that the recession has had an impact on the ability of millions of Americans to deal with the most basic of issues, such as can they afford to eat.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack drove home the point when he testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Environment. He made a pitch for congressional approval of the USDA’s Child Nutrition Programs.

“The scale of these programs means that reforms can have a major impact on tens of millions of school children. For instance, the National School Lunch Program serves 31 million school children in more than 100,000 schools across the country.

“For many children in our programs, school lunch and breakfast represents the only healthy food that they eat all day. We must work to ensure access to nutrition assistance for children, when and where they need it, particularly during the ‘gap periods,’ when we know children struggle to receive the nutrition they need — summer months, during breakfast, and in after-school environments,” Vilsack said.

While Congress works on federal funding for domestic food and nutrition programs, the Washington Legislature can do its part to ensure that food distribution programs are funded even in a budget that faces a projected $2.6 billion shortfall. They also could bring more efficiency to the food and nutrition programs that are scattered among several state agencies by consolidating them under one agency. The state Department of Agriculture makes sense because of the USDA connection.

As for other South Sound residents, we must not abandon the thousands of residents — most of them children — who go to bed hungry. Area food banks deserve broad community support for their extraordinary efforts to feed the hungry and end hunger in Thurston County.