September is Hunger Action Month – Spread the Word to Strengthen Food Security!
September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide campaign to stimulate the public to take action on the issue of hunger, food insecurity, and poverty. Organized by Feeding America—the nationwide network of food banks—this campaign strives to bring greater attention to the issue of hunger in America and promotes ways for individuals everywhere to get involved with the movement to solve it. Like most nationally-organized campaigns, Hunger Awareness Month attempts to inspire individuals to act within their own communities and play a role in getting food to those in need.
The need for elevated action is acute in Coles County and East Central Illinois. Nationally, Feeding America reports that 1 in 6 individuals—just under 17 percent of the population—are at-risk of hunger or food insecurity; based on my own research, in Coles County more than 2 in 5 individuals—40.5 percent—may not know from where their next meal may come. Further, over 35 percent of all families with children under 18 years of age in Coles County are at-risk of inadequate nutrition due to unstable and inaccessible sources of food. Therefore, this is not just a month for awareness locally, but a call for critical action to strengthen the social safety net county-wide.
As a researcher and advocate, I am often asked what can be done to strike at the heart of the issues of food insecurity and poverty. My reply is a simple one: donate money to local food pantries. Often, this is met with some reservation; research on charitable giving has concluded that private individuals and organizations get more satisfaction through the act of giving if we actually distribute the products or goods directly to those in need. This is why we see so many canned-food drives or the procurement of prepared meals at shelters and soup kitchens. While noble and very much appreciated, without cash donations, our local pantries actually miss out on maximizing the amount of commodities to dispense to their customers.
For example, when we spend one dollar on a can of beans or corn to be placed in a box or bag for a family in need, food pantries can take that single dollar and purchase ten dollars worth of food from the regional food bank; that is ten cans of beans or corn for every one we can we can buy at the grocery store.
A recent working research paper by Bethany Slater of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany corroborates this line of reasoning. She found that food pantries benefit the most and can efficiently increase the amount of food available for distribution through private cash donations; the best source of in-kind donations happens to be public sector entities such as local, state, and federal agencies. These public sector agencies are better able to commit resources for the long-term, not only through a one-time food drive or donation.
These issues are most acute as I recently learned of a shortage of meat-based commodities typically available from regional food banks. The federal government provides surplus commodities such as meat and poultry, as well as some dairy and canned vegetables, to regional food banks who then distribute this food to our local pantries and soup kitchens. It is projected that meat, poultry, and other animal-based protein sources, due to a national shortage, may not be available until December. Prices for meats—especially beef—have skyrocketed due to these shortages and the cost of all high-protein foods are elevated. The result is that meat will be missing from the dinner tables of some households who need this nutrition the most, and especially if our local pantries are already experiencing thin budgets.
If giving of money or food directly may be feasible, there are plenty of other ways to act. For example, one can volunteer their time at area food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens. We can inform ourselves of these issues and help educate our family members, neighbors, and friends. We can even seek to break-down barriers to food justice and find creative ways to connect those at-risk of food insecurity and hunger with nutritious, quality, and beneficial food – even if it means simply opening ourselves up to write a check.