Hunger pains

In the first two weeks after Hurricane Sandy battered the Mid-Atlantic region, leaving millions without power, relief agencies provided an estimated 4.9 million meals to the victims — the equivalent of 150 tractor-trailer loads of food. That was a Herculean task for which those workers should be congratulated, but it was also a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Had Sandy never hit the region, there would still be hunger of shocking proportions. In Maryland alone, the latest estimates are that at least 460,000 people are "food insecure," meaning they are not certain to have adequate nutrition on a day-to-day basis. That's a shortfall of about 79 million meals, or 16 times the post-Sandy relief efforts.

The hungry do not necessarily fit the stereotype. Many live in the suburbs. They may hold a job, albeit a low-paying one. They frequently don't qualify for much in the way of government benefits. And often, they've never had to seek help from others before.

This is the reality of an America where an estimated 1 in 6 do not get enough to eat. For all the talk about the "47 percent" who allegedly voted for President Barack Obama to get the "free stuff," such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly called food stamps), the need continues to outpace the benefit.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving at tables groaning from the weight of a turkey-to-pumpkin-pie bounty, it would be wise to visit an emergency pantry or soup kitchen to gain some perspective. And with negotiators representing the White House and Congress now discussing what trims they plan to make to social welfare programs to forestall the "fiscal cliff," such reflection is all the more appropriate.

At the Maryland Food Bank, the state's largest supplier of food to the needy, demand has never been greater. CEO Deborah Flateman expects to provide a record 30 million pounds to local agencies for distribution this year. That's up from 26 million pounds last year and 23 million pounds the year before. But even that, she says, will come up short.

While unemployment numbers are down slightly this year, they don't tell the story of underemployment and the rising cost of living in Maryland and elsewhere. The sharp increase in food stamp costs during President Obama's first term has a clear cause — the extraordinary need of those who are going hungry.

"I don't know what rock [the critics] may be living under, but if anybody looked around their own neighborhood, they'd find people in need," Ms. Flateman says.

In Baltimore County, for instance, the closing of the Sparrows Point steel plant has many concerned about families going without this holiday season. Many may be brand new to the safety net system, unfamiliar with how to get help and reluctant to accept it.

For all the criticism of food stamps, they are not so easily obtained. To qualify in Baltimore County, for instance, a family of four can earn no more than $2,238 a month to receive a maximum of $668 in assistance. For most households, if you have more than $2,000 to your name, your family won't qualify.

That's not to suggest that people haven't been working hard to help those in need. Corporate and individual giving is up this year. A growing number of farmers are setting aside a portion of their crops, too. In Maryland, participation in a farm-to-food-bank program has gone from a handful of growers two years ago to 51 participating farms this year.

Grocery chains are donating meat that's reached the sell-by date but is still nutritious. Volunteers are packing holiday boxes for Thanksgiving with all the trimmings: the Maryland Food Bank alone distributed 15,800 of them this year, each with its own turkey.

Why concern ourselves with hunger? Not simply to fulfill some perceived obligation to charity or church. Hunger and poor nutrition have a profound impact on the physical and mental health of an estimated 32 million Americans. It's difficult to find work or study in school or even stay healthy if you aren't getting enough to eat, and that's particularly true of vulnerable seniors and children.

If we want to improve our educational outcomes, get more people in jobs and reduce our health care costs, we must start by ensuring people have access to a decent meal.

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