No one re­turns a tur­key

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - STEVE ROBERTS

In case you have any gift ex­changes or par­ties left on your cal­en­dar, here’s a last­minute gift idea: food.

This coun­try is caught in a dam­ag­ing cy­cle. Hard times mean that hunger is ris­ing while do­na­tions to food banks are drop­ping. The govern­ment helps some­what, but pri­vate char­ity has to help, as well.

Sev­eral years ago, we de­cided to stop giv­ing each other ex­pen­sive hol­i­day presents and in­stead do­nate that money to our lo­cal feed­ing pro­grams, and since then, the need has only got­ten worse. The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau re­ported in 2010 that the of­fi­cial poverty rate had jumped to 15.1% -- 46.2 mil­lion peo­ple -- but the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that twice that num­ber were “scrap­ing by on earn­ings that clas­sify them as low-in­come.” One key rea­son: Real house­hold in­comes dropped 6.4% from 2007, when the re­ces­sion be­gan, to 2010.

These trends have a di­rect im­pact on food se­cu­rity. The United States Con­fer­ence of May­ors re­ported that of 29 cities sur­veyed, 25 saw a sharp in­crease in re­quests for help. As a re­sult, many feed­ing agen­cies are re­duc­ing quan­ti­ties or lim­it­ing vis­its; some are even turn­ing needy fam­i­lies away.

Be­hind these sta­tis­tics are real faces, real fam­i­lies, real com­mu­ni­ties. Here’s a brief sampling of re­ports from around the coun­try:

Texas: At Fort Hood, mil­i­tary spouses stayed up past mid­night to reg­is­ter for free Thanksgivi­ng tur­keys. The 450 slots were filled in an hour, re­ports The Wash­ing­ton Post. “It’s like a hid­den world,” said Army wife Amy King, who was lin­ing up for free gro­ceries at an­other post. “We have to strug­gle like ev­ery­body else does.”

New York: In a school dis­trict west of Rochester, laid-off Kodak and Xerox man­agers reg­is­tered their kids for sub­si­dized school lunches for the first time. Debbi Beau­vais, who su­per­vised the pro­gram, told The New York Times: “Par­ents sign­ing up chil­dren say, ‘I never thought a pro­gram like this would ap­ply to me and my kids.’”

Idaho: Wal­mart stores have seen an “enor­mous spike” in the num­ber of con­sumers shop­ping at mid­night on the first day of ev­ery month, when their food stamp ac­counts get re­plen­ished. James Dougherty told NBC News that to­ward the end of the month, when their stamps run out, his fam­ily sub­sists mainly on rice. So they join the rav­en­ous crowds when they can shop again. “It’s chaotic, I mean, it re­ally is,” he says. “If you’re claus­tro­pho­bic, don’t go into an Idaho gro­cery store on the first.”

Pennsylvan­ia: “We’re see­ing a lot of first-time users,” said Carey Mor­gan, a hunger ad­vo­cate in the wealthy suburbs north of Philadel­phia, to philly­burbs.com. “They may have been re­ceiv­ing a six-fig­ure salary a few years ago, (but) ev­ery­one is one dis­as­ter away. It could be a lay­off, med­i­cal emer­gency, mort­gage pay­ment. It’s so easy to fall into the cy­cle of poverty.”

Ne­braska: One out of 6 kids un­der 18 in Lin­coln County was at-risk for hunger, re­ported the North Platte Tele­graph. Hunger is of­ten an in­vis­i­ble prob­lem, said Brian Barks of the Heart­land Food Bank: Neigh­bors of­ten don’t know that “some­one down the street just lost a job and is hav­ing to de­cide be­tween pay­ing bills and buy­ing food.”

Feed­ing peo­ple is not just a ques­tion of char­ity; it’s in the na­tional in­ter­est. Food aid is spent im­me­di­ately, so it di­rectly stim­u­lates the econ­omy and gen­er­ates in­come for store own­ers, truck­ers and pro­duc­ers. And it saves money in the long run by pro­mot­ing health­ier chil­dren.

A lengthy report in the Kansas City Star con­cluded: “The fall­out when chil­dren don’t get the nutri­tion they need can cre­ate a life­time of trou­bles: de­layed speech or mo­tor skills in early child­hood, so­cial ills in el­e­men­tary school, se­vere aca­demic woes in high school. Some be­come dropouts. All be­cause, ex­perts say, food-in­se­cure chil­dren are of­ten de­prived of the proper nu­tri­ents at a time when their brains and bod­ies are go­ing through the most es­sen­tial growth.”

“It’s quite cheap to feed chil­dren, and very ex­pen­sive to hos­pi­tal­ize them and give them spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams and so on,” said Deb­o­rah Frank, an ex­pert in child­hood hunger. “It’s just dumb, to put it mildly.”

So write a check to your lo­cal food bank. Kids get smarter, the econ­omy gets bet­ter, and you don’t have to stress out over find­ing the per­fect gift. Af­ter all, no one re­turns a tur­key be­cause it’s the wrong size.

•••

Steven Roberts teaches pol­i­tics and jour­nal­ism at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity. He can be con­tacted by email at steve­[email protected]

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