The problem of hunger in America is rapidly approaching crisis levels, affecting a great many people in a drastic and dangerous way. Then why isn’t it receiving more widespread attention? Hunger has become an ever-increasing problem following the start of the economic recession in 2008, largely attributable to job losses. Those in rural areas where jobs are more scarce have been hit the hardest. We are nearing a crucial tipping point as food prices escalate and more people rely on government assistance and charities for food. Looming budget cuts to government-assistance programs and food subsidies weigh heavily on the minds of many Americans. Yet, there is no nationwide dialogue about the problem of huger and food-insecurity in the U.S.
Despite these frightening statistics, there is very little media coverage or national discussion about the American hunger crisis. Cities and towns that rely heavily on tourism for economic survival don’t want to advertise their struggles with hunger or poverty at the risk of driving away potential tourist revenue. City councils and state officials don’t want to publicly acknowledge hunger in their communities for fear of negatively impacting economic development and future business growth. And so hunger remains our nation’s hidden shame.
“Hungry and food-insecure people aren’t deadbeats,” explains Grady. “They’re children, senior citizens, single moms, the low-income-working-poor, and people who have lost their jobs because of the economy.”
Perhaps what’s most bothersome is the deficit of federal focus on the hunger crisis. There is no national food council in the U.S., no federal plans or policies to address hunger or the immediate and future need for food. That job is left to the states, and very few have risen to the challenge. In Arizona, the only government agency addressing the food crisis is the Department of Economic Security.
Of course we have food banks, but are they sufficiently addressing the problem? At present, there are thousands of food banks in the U.S. providing food assistance, but only about a hundred food councils. During 2011, United Food Bank of Arizona distributed 19 million pounds of food. St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance reports food box distribution for Maricopa County is at an all-time high, and other smaller food banks around the state report similar statistics.
Even so, food banks only provide a “band-aid” to hunger rather than creating a long-term solution. Most operate largely on charitable donations with limited financial and human resources. They’re staffed mainly by part-time volunteers, many of whom are senior citizens or young volunteers, often inexperienced at managing large-scale food distributions. And because many food banks are established and managed by churches and other faith-based organizations, limited effort is made to coordinate with each other to address the bigger picture with long-term solutions.
Our federal government must step up by developing food plans and policies that address the larger issues: where does our food come from; who grows or produces which types of food; how is food distributed; and how much does food cost the consumer. With just a quick glance at food prices, it’s easy to see that low-income workers and those in poverty are excluded from purchasing many foods, particularly those deemed the most healthy, like organic fruits and vegetables.
How do we go about reducing the number of hungry people in our communities? One of the easiest and most obvious places to begin is at the local level.
- Food banks must begin working in partnership to gain a broader view of the problem in their communities, and to develop more realistic assessments that lead to long-term solutions.
- Communities must demand more co-operative gardens and school gardening programs so that these become the norm, not the exception.
- State and national policies must also be developed to address food sourcing, escalating food prices, and food distribution.
- Greater emphasis must be placed on sustainable agriculture, and there must be more discussion about the legislation sponsored by large corporations designed to prevent local farmers from supplying their own communities.
- Most importantly, more jobs must be created, with greater emphasis in rural areas, so that people can afford to buy food.
“It’s a very daunting problem, but I feel good about what we can do at the local level,” says Grady. “It’s in the local arena that we have the best chance of making a difference. When we strategize in Yavapai County, we don’t just talk about food. We think of ideas that will help individuals get jobs, not just temporary jobs but jobs that provide economic sustainability. We think in terms of helping struggling businesses.”
In his never-ending battle against hunger and food insecurity, Grady and the Verde Food Council are working to involve the Arizona Departments of Health Services and Education with community organizations in finding solutions. The council also plans to develop a speaker’s bureau that will educate local businesses, schools and government agencies about the hunger crisis in Arizona. And he continues to work with local food banks to persuade them to move beyond their current operational methods.
“Instead of just handing a family a pre-selected box of items, food banks like St. Mary’s and United Food Bank let people choose what they will eat from the food stores they have available. But instead of being proactive, the entire system is still taking a very reactive approach. They’re doing the best with what they have, and the quality of the food they offer has improved in recent years due to funding increases. If we could develop a link between local farmers and local food banks, it would be a very positive step towards in the right direction,” Grady reports.
For more information about hunger and food-insecurity in Arizona and how you can help:
- FirstFoodBank.org (St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance)