Have heart

A divided society must come together to stop starvation


Chasms between the haves and have-nots are not new in America. The important question remains how best to bridge them.

The first administrator of the Food Stamp Program, Milo Perkins, said, “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across the chasm.”

In 1939, when the Food Stamp program was born, farmers had unmarketable food surpluses while there was widespread unemployment. The federal government program let people on relief buy stamps for food; for every dollar of stamps purchased, they got 50 cents worth of surplus food for free. This history is detailed by the United States Department of Agriculture.

When the widespread unemployment ended, so did the program. In 1961, though, President John F. Kennedy announced the start of a new Food Stamp pilot program that has led to our modern-day program, now called SNAP for Supplemental Assistance Nutritional Program.

Government programs have not done enough. In the late 1960s, a retired Phoenix businessman, John van Hengel, volunteered at a soup kitchen where he spoke to a patron there who said she often fed her family with food from the grocery store’s garbage bins.

Van Hengel started soliciting unwanted food from stores and farms, creating the nation’s first food bank. A federal grant allowed for incorporation in 1976 as a not-for-profit organization, now called Feeding America, which serves the entire country. It is the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief charity.

The Feeding America website profiles people from around the country who are hungry to make the point that hunger is not just a problem in certain regions or for certain age or ethnic groups. The site profiles Gloria from New York State, saying her life took a turn for the worse two years ago.

Her husband died of cancer, and, not too long after, her mother died. As a single mother at age 45, she struggled to provide for her eight children and two nephews, all younger than 16.

“My mom was taking care of the kids while I was working, but when she passed away, I was forced to leave my job to take care of my kids,” she said.

She relies on public assistance, Social Security, and SNAP, but, after the bills are paid, she has only about $20 left each month to pay for food and other essentials.

Collecting the waste that would otherwise be discarded and using it to feed people in need is a great idea. Our area is served by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

“We serve 23 counties from New Jersey to Canada,” said Mark Quandt, its executive director.

The food bank gets its food from retailers, producers, farmers, brokers, and manufacturers, he said. It supplies 20 million pounds of food annually to programs for the young and old and disabled as well as to emergency shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries.

Currently, food banks across the country are having trouble meeting the increased demand caused by the recession with widespread unemployment.

A survey released last week by Feeding America found that 99 percent of all participating food banks reported a significant demand for emergency food assistance over the past year. Ninety-eight percent of the food banks said that the increase is driven by first-time users, often people who have lost their jobs.

“The need was growing last year,” said Quandt, “especially with the rise in food prices. Then the economy collapsed and it really skyrocketed. From October on, it’s been a real challenge to meet the need.”

The need is up 20 percent from a year ago, said Quandt. The poor growing season didn’t help.

Pauline Williman’s Patroon Land Foundation in Knox has been a local beacon of charity. Williman, who was born on her family’s Ketchum Road farm eight decades ago, made it into a not-for-profit foundation so that the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York could grow produce there.

Volunteers have worked the farm to help with planting and harvesting. A lot of the produce donated to the regional food bank is flawed; it’s not inedible but it doesn’t look beautiful on a store shelf so it’s donated. Not so with the Knox project.

Quandt said several years ago of the Patroon Land Foundation, “The beauty of it is that, within a day, it’s gone,” sent to various food pantries and programs. “It’s nutritious, very high-quality, and there’s a good variety,” he said. “We don’t often get a good variety.”

Last year, the Patroon Land Foundation produced 100,000 pounds of food, said Quandt. “This year was very different because of the weather,” he said. Although a wide variety of crops were planted, including carrots, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and lettuce, there was blight and excess water, he said.

While Quandt says he is not aware of hungry people being turned away, “In some cases, they’re not getting as large packages. They don’t have as much food to give,” he said of the pantries and soup kitchens. “They do everything in their power not to turn people away.”

He doesn’t see the situation improving any time soon. “Even if the recession has bottomed out,’ he said, “joblessness is still high. It will take time to recover.”

Hungry children are of particular concern to Quandt. Feeding America estimates that 12 million children live in “food insecure households,” meaning they are unsure where there next meal will come from. The organization cites research showing that children in food insecure households have trouble learning and are less likely than well-fed children to become healthy, productive members of society.

“Without the food pantries, there would be a lot of kids without any food at all,” said Quandt. “A lot of new people are going to food pantries for the first time. They’ve lost their jobs….It’s been a real change for a lot of people.”

He also said, “A lot of people don’t know where to go to get help, or they’re too proud to go.”

There is no shame in feeding yourself and your family. We urge those who need food to call one of these local pantries:

— The Altamont Community Food Pantry at 861-8770;

—   The Guilderland Interfaith Council Food Pantry at 456-5410, ext. 15;

—   The Hilltowns Community Resource Center Food Pantry at 797-5256;

—   The New Scotland Community Food Pantry at 765-3806, ext. 6; or

—   The Onesquethaw Food Pantry at 452-4978 or 768-2427.

We urge those who have food or money to spare to donate it. And, we urge those who have time to give to volunteer their talents. Information on how to do these things is online at www.regionalfoodbank.org.

Beyond that, we urge citizens to look at the bigger picture. While private ventures like the regional food banks are worthwhile, they can only do so much. We need to support more federal funding for child nutrition programs and support President Barack Obama’s pledge to end child hunger by 2015.

“Kids are the most vulnerable,” said Quandt. “It’s a worthwhile investment,” he said, noting that paying for children’s food when they are in their formative years will save money in the long run as they become productive citizens rather than needy or troubled people.

We live in a land of plenty but one in eight Americans are hungry. Let us bridge the chasm.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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