Helping the hungry

In the age of Trump, will we still care about the less fortunate?

As Americans settle down for their annual Thanksgiving meals on Thursday, they ought to take a moment to give thanks — not just for the bounty on their own tables but for those who make combating hunger a year-round job or avocation.

It is a fact of life that even in the most powerful and most prosperous nation on the planet, there are still millions of Americans who are food insecure — meaning they lack consistent, dependable access to enough food to remain healthy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of such households has been on the decline but remains vast — about 15.8 million households suffered from food insecurity in 2015, or 12.7 percent of all U.S. households.

Maryland's situation is much the same. About 1 in 8 state residents are regarded as food insecure, which represents roughly 760,000 men, women and children from Oakland to Ocean City, according to Feeding America, the non-profit anti-hunger advocacy group. What improvements have taken place — credited primarily, experts say, to modest gains in the economy and job creation — the demand for food pantries and other distributors of free food remains robust.

What comes next for such anti-hunger programs is hard to predict. Republicans have long talked about rolling back safety net spending, and with control of both Congress and the White House, the opportunity is likely to present itself. During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump belittled the food stamp program (or SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and its expansion under President Barack Obama, but exactly how this will translate into policy is not yet clear.

What is clear is that too many people still go to bed hungry. Two years ago, Pikesville CPA and mother of two Lynne Kahn decided to help do something about it, creating an all-volunteer city-based program to stuff the backpacks of selected students with food to help carry them through the weekends. Today, the Baltimore Hunger Project now serves 160 children enrolled in eight Baltimore and Baltimore County elementary schools (up from 30 kids in two schools in its first year), providing them with shelf stable, ready-to-eat options on days when school cafeterias simply aren't available to them.

"There's a tremendous need, and we're just starting to scratch the surface," Ms. Kahn observes.

At the Maryland Food Bank, an army of nearly 900 volunteers on Monday finished assembling holiday meals under its "Pack To Give Back" program that are being distributed to 11,000 families across the state, with half of them in Baltimore. Those Thanksgiving meals, including turkey, stuffing, green beans, corn muffins and the like, represent one of the organization's most costly undertakings but provide a truly meaningful experience for volunteers and recipients alike.

This past year, the Maryland Food Bank provided 44 million meals to local residents, or 120,000 per day. Yet, as spokeswoman Meg Kimmel noted, the organization could easily triple the amount of food distributed — if it had the resources and the volunteers. Such is the unceasing demand by individuals living on the margins of society.

"If there's one thing people can agree on, it's that everyone should have access to food," Ms. Kimmel says.

Why do so many still go hungry? The chief cause is poverty. But it's not just people who lack a job. Nearly half of Marylanders who are food insecure are employed but living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes, after paying the rent and other bills, there simply isn't enough for proper nutrition. And then there are the city's food "deserts" where healthy food is not only harder to find but often more expensive to purchase.

Homelessness, drug addiction, unstable families, all can play a role. And while there are government-sponsored programs to help, including SNAP and the school lunch program, many still fail to take advantage of them. Thus, sometimes what is needed is someone to quietly stuff a child's backpack with a can of Vienna sausages or boxes of cereal and milk.

Perhaps this year, instead of arguing over the last election of the state of politics, it might be more productive for families celebrating Thanksgiving to take a moment to think about those less fortunate. Better yet would be to make a donation — perhaps through www.marylandfoodbank.org or some other deserving provider — and rise above the divisive politics that have captured so much public attention of late.

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