Truth of hunger; Day brings awareness to stigmatized problem

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2003

If the United States is the land of plenty, then Alaska, especially the Kenai Peninsula, must be the place of abundance. With healthy fish and game populations, awe-inspiring natural beauty and conditions ripe for gardening (however short the growing season), the peninsula can rightfully lay claim to being the paradise of the North.

Nevertheless, the peninsula, like the rest of the nation, is plagued by a problem that doesn't fit its cornucopia image: hunger.

How can there be hunger in one of the wealthiest nations in the world? In one of the wealthiest states of that wealthy nation? In one of the most economically diverse communities of that wealthy state? How can hunger and obesity both be major health issues in this nation?

It's difficult to fathom the problem, because the face of hunger in America differs from that of other regions of the world where famine, war and poverty the likes of which are unknown in this country contribute to hunger.

Food-relief organizations across the United States, including the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, today are trying to show the faces and facets of hunger in America as part of National Hunger Awareness Day. While many may view winter as the time of greatest need, today was deliberately picked because with the end of school, children, who were receiving food in free breakfast or lunch programs, may not know where their next meal is coming from. Yes, even here on the peninsula. That's one of the reasons Love INC is offering a breakfast program for families in need this summer and why the food bank's soup kitchen will serve more children at this time of year.

Some statistics from America's Second Harvest, a national food-relief organization, help tell the story of hunger in America:

One of every four people in a soup kitchen line is a child.

In 2000, approximately 13 million children in the United States were "food insecure," which means they were hungry or at risk of being hungry.

Closer to home, some statistics from the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank:

The food bank distributes approximately 543,605 thousands pounds of food annually enough to feed 331 people every day for a year.

The food bank's soup kitchen serves 55 to 100 people a day, including many single-parent families with children.

Those statistics likely don't mean a lot to you if you buy into some of the prevailing myths about hunger, including: People are poor and consequently, hungry because they are too lazy to work. People's personal failures bring on hunger and poverty. If people work hard, they'll succeed.

Those myths just don't match with reality, which is:

Of 23 million people served by America's Second Harvest, almost half live in households with at least one working adult. Of those 23 million, 9 million are children under the age of 18. Even if you buy into the myth that if people work hard enough, they won't be hungry, surely children can't be held accountable by going hungry because their parents can't afford to properly feed them.

In today's economic climate, those people who once supported food banks and food pantries with their time and money are now finding they need the services provided by the agencies. Nationwide, more than 2 million jobs have been lost since the beginning of 2001. Peninsula residents are well acquainted with recent job losses. The fact is no matter how high one's salary is today, a job loss, serious illness, injury or death in the family could put a family at the risk of hunger in the near future.

Hunger is not just a problem of the homeless or those in the inner city or the chronically jobless. A 2001 study of hunger in America found many people have to make the difficult choice between paying utilities and buying food or between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage.

The correlation between hunger and obesity is worth noting, because oftentimes they are the flip sides of the same coin. Writes America's Second Harvest: "Hunger and obesity both increase when families cannot afford to purchase the most nutritious food possible. When a family is living on a tight budget, junk food ("filler food") or fast food is usually easier and cheaper to buy than nutritious food. Some of the poorest children are also overweight; eating junk food is a way to fill up and, unfortunately, also put on empty pounds. This means that many poor people who look overfed are actually malnourished."

In a nation and community as wealthy as ours, it's a crime that anyone is hungry.

Unlike many domestic problems, hunger can be solved. The solution lies in raising awareness that there is a problem and then working to meet the need one individual and family at a time.

In an effort to raise awareness about hunger on the peninsula, several public officials including Sen. Tom Wagoner; Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley; borough assembly members Pete Sprague and John Davis; Soldotna City Council members Jane Stein, Audrey Porter and Lisa Parker; and school board members Sammy Crawford and Margaret Gilman are serving lunch at the food bank's soup kitchen today. The public is always invited to stop by for lunch at the food kitchen, and today is no exception.

You can help eliminate hunger on the peninsula by contributing to the food bank's efforts with your time and money, supporting Love INC's summer breakfast program, volunteering to help in the food bank garden or planting a row in your own garden to give to the food bank. In addition, several restaurants today are donating a percentage of their proceeds to the food bank, including: Bear Paw Coffee Shop and Deli, Blue Grouse Drive-In, Wings Family Diner, Charlotte's, Coffee Concepts, Jersey Subs, Mykel's Restaurant, River City Books, Veronica's and the Vintage Moose Tea Room.

People never know when they might go from being a supporter of food-relief efforts to needing those same efforts. Those efforts are critical to a healthy community because, as the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank's mission statement says, "no one deserves to go hungry."

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