Impact Your World: The global food market's shelves are getting bare and hunger activists say it will get worse. As the nation marks World Hunger Relief Week, more people are asking: Why are so many people starving and what, if anything, can be done to eradicate hunger? Learn how you can help
CNN Senior National Editor
The young man, wearing a shirt and a tie, turned up just as the pantry operated by an Iowa food bank was closing for the night.
He knew it was after-hours. That’s why he was there.
He kept his gaze downward as he told the woman from the food bank that he had lost his job, had a wife and kids and was too embarrassed and ashamed to stand in line to receive a bag of groceries that hopefully would feed his family for a week.
I have a master’s degree. I shouldn’t have to do this, he said.
I heard this story last December, a few weeks before the Iowa presidential caucus.
Throughout this election season I talked with professionals and volunteers at food banks and pantries across the country.
The refrain was the same from Oregon to South Carolina, from Maine to Texas: Demand was rising, easily outstripping supply.
More and more new faces were standing in line; not looking anyone else in the eye, hoping not to be recognized by friends or neighbors.
The bitter irony for some was that once they had contributed to their local food bank. Now they needed its help.
These people did not fit the stereotype of who comes to a pantry, a shelter or a kitchen.
A lost job, an unexpected medical expense, a utility bill or difficulty paying the rent or mortgage – especially during a period of high food prices – any of these can push people into that line.
The freshest statistics, covering 2007, were served up this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An estimated 36.2 million people struggled with some form of hunger (or, to use the government term, “food insecurity.”)
That’s 12.2 percent of the population – one in eight Americans.
Among them . . . some 691,000 children.
That was last year.
We know what direction the economic arrows point this year.
When he takes office next year, President-elect Obama will have a menu full of priorities.
There should be room for hunger on his plate.
From the perspective of professionals in the field, not enough was said on the campaign trail about hunger.
“When it comes to the political candidates, invisible is a good word,” was the assessment from Karen Ford, executive director of the Food Bank of Iowa, who pronounced herself “tremendously” disappointed.
“The folks out there believe that’s not going to be the topic that’s going to get them elected,” said Agostinho “Augie” Fernandes, then president of the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. “It’s not sexy enough,” Fernandes chuckled.
There was hunger even along the generally affluent “Main Line” of Philadelphia.
Marlo DelSordo of Philabundance, which operates the city’s largest food bank, told me about a woman whose husband lost his job as a corporate executive and, like millions of Americans caught in the mortgage industry meltdown, they were “house poor.” Appearing somewhat shell-shocked, this woman never expected to be at a pantry, receiving a handout.
“People don’t associate people in the suburbs with hunger,” DelSordo says. “But so many of the people that we help, they’re trying” even with jobs and education, to keep food on the table.
Naomi Schalit, opinion editor of the Kennebec Journal, authored a remarkable series of articles about hunger in Maine. The six months Schalit spent last year meeting the hungry and visiting food banks and pantries, changed her life. “I was guilt wracked. Here I was spending as much on one meal as some of these people had to feed themselves for a day or longer,” she told me. Schalit noticed the amount of food left uneaten at restaurants. At the grocery, she marveled at the variety, but was critical of “the energy spent in this insane, ridiculous diversity . . . I mean, who needs 14 kinds of oat flakes? We can do all this, but we can’t feed our people,” Schalit lamented.
Schalit’s heroes included Nancy Marcoux, director of the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fairfield. The 63-year-old Marcoux remembered when Mainers were more self-sufficient. But now more and more people around her – people with jobs, with educations, but with diminished opportunities, resources and hope – were struggling. “They’ll come in and say, ‘I never thought in my life that I’d have to come to a food pantry,’” Marcoux told Schalit.
Yes, millions of tax dollars are spent to feed the hungry – by supplying food banks with surplus farm commodities, through the food stamp programs and by other means.
Yes, the food industry – which has become increasingly efficient, producing less excess – provides local communities with sizeable donations.
Yes, millions of Americans give not only money and food – but also their time. Volunteers often are as welcome as canned goods.
But the number of people in line grows steadily.
The dedicated folks who work at food banks and the agencies they serve see the human faces that represent those numbers.
They know that Thanksgiving compels more private citizens and businesses to make donations.
And they know their local news media will report on efforts to feed the less fortunate.
They just hope that after Thanksgiving the faces in those lines won’t be forgotten.
Because hunger takes no holidays.