Those who manage our country's emergency food system would like us to know that that belief is unfounded. Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief charity in the United States, saw a 46 percent increase in clients between 2005 and 2009. One in eight Americans (about a third of them children) now receive at least part of their food from emergency sources, and the numbers are still rising.
The current recession has created or exacerbated financial pressures, including prolonged unemployment, shrinking retirement savings, reduced work hours and wages, and home foreclosures, while costs for fuel, health care, and groceries continue to rise. Add the destruction wrought by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the Gulf oil disaster, and it's no wonder many people are struggling to keep food on the table.
Those of us who are "food secure"—the USDA's way of describing households with access to enough food—may assume that government food programs come to the rescue when the economy falters. There are gaps in the system, however, and budget-balancing austerity measures being discussed and implemented in Washington and in state capitals across the country threaten to make those gaps wider by targeting programs for the needy just as demand is rising.
And the problem goes beyond the relatively small number of people who simply don't get enough to eat. There's a large group of Americans whose food choices are limited by their budgets. They may never be hungry in the physical sense—they manage to keep enough food in their stomachs to prevent starvation—but their diets are centered on calorie-rich but nutrient-poor processed foods, since these foods are often cheaper. (Federal subsidies for corn and soy, the key ingredients in many processed foods, help make this possible.) Hunger and overconsumption are simply two faces of malnutrition. We may recognize the first but fail to recognize the second, since it sometimes takes on the paradoxical disguise of obesity.
For those on the front lines in the fight against hunger, one of the most frustrating facts is this: At a time when 40 million Americans are enrolled in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), billions of pounds of food never makes it from farms, orchards, and gardens to the dinner table. While some is lost to bad weather and pest infestations in the field and some is spoiled during transportation and handling, some is discarded because, although perfectly edible, it does not meet the aesthetic standards of modern supermarket shoppers. And consumers are guilty of buying and discarding tons of fresh fruit and vegetables each year. Then, to add insult to injury, we spend millions to dispose of the waste.
As everyday citizens, we can help connect those who have excess food with those who need it by taking the time to learn about how our local charity food distribution systems work, when our politicians are proposing legislation that harms the hungry, and where food is being wasted (including our own kitchens). As citizens who garden, though, we can do even more: We can divert some of our abundance away from the waste stream and toward hungry people. We can help ensure that they have not only enough food but enough fresh, nutritious, affordable food. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, either; many established programs have shown the way, and others are in the midst of being created (see "Feeding Creativity," below, and go to OrganicGardening.com/plenty for more inspiration). The number of ways we can help is limited only by our imaginations.
Many of America's problems seem to have no easy solutions, but hunger shouldn't be one of them. The solution is right in our back yards. We have plenty.
Plant a Row for the Hungry (gardenwriters.org), sponsored by the Garden Writers Association, challenges gardeners to grow extra produce for food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens. Since 1995, gardeners have donated more than 14 million pounds of herbs and vegetables through this program to help feed the hungry.
Community groups such as Scout troops and faith congregations maintain garden plots devoted to raising food for donation. Experienced gardeners may try working with the local food bank or soup kitchen to establish and supervise a donation garden. Volunteer help may be available from surprising sources. At the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, for example, youth under the supervision of the Lehigh County juvenile probation department learn gardening skills from the Penn State Master Gardeners who maintain the food bank's garden.
Many small food pantries can't offer fresh produce to their clients because they have no means of storing it, so clients are limited to canned and dried offerings. Community groups could raise funds to buy coolers for these pantries; in the meantime, Ample Harvest (ampleharvest.org) offers an online "virtual bulletin board" connecting growers with excess produce to food banks that accept it.
Gleaning campaigns like Food Forward (foodforward.org), Village Harvest (http://www.villageharvest.org), and the Portland Fruit Tree Project (portlandfruit.org) organize crews of volunteers to rescue fruit and vegetables left behind after crops are harvested.
Farmers' markets are increasingly accepting SNAP cards as a form of payment. If your local market isn't one of them, find out how to encourage it to become one in a free publication from the Project for Public Spaces, available for download at pps.org/seven-steps-snap-ebt-market.
Governments at the local, state, and national level are getting involved in growing food. Most have heard of the vegetable gardens at the White House and the offices of the USDA, but cities like Des Moines, Iowa, are using the land in neighborhood parks and around schools and community shelters to grow edible crops. Using public space in this way increases a community's food security and access to culturally appropriate and nutritious food. The Healthy Foods initiative at United We Serve (the Corporation for National & Community Service, serve.gov/healthyfoods.asp) can help gardeners locate service opportunities or register a project in their communities.
Latest government statistics about food security in America:
USDA Economic Research Service
Information about federal food assistance programs:
USDA Food and Nutrition Service
Information about America's charity food distribution system and updates on pertinent federal legislation:
Feeding America, 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2000, Chicago, IL 60601, 800-771-2303, (click on "Our Network," then "The Studies" to find a downloadable version of the report Hunger in America 2010).
Portal of resources to increase food and nutrition initiatives:
We Can End Hunger
Tips and resources for reducing food waste:
The Society of St. Andrew, 3383 Sweet Hollow Rd., Big Island, VA 24526, 800-333-4597
Plant a Row for the Hungry program:
Garden Writers Association Foundation, 877-492-2727
Learn more about hunger and locate a food bank that offers or accepts garden produce: Ample Harvest, 267-536-9880
Locate or register service projects supporting healthy foods:
United We Serve, Corporation for National and Community Service, 1201 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20525, 202-606-5000