Hunger and the holidays. The two are inescapable. That’s probably because for the next two months just about all of us are inundated with pleas to help feed the hungry. They come in the mail, by email and in web ads. They arrive in personal solicitations on the street (“spare change”), in houses of worship, even in grocery stores, many of which run food donation drives this time of year. Here’s the question: what giving works? What giving calms growling stomachs best?
Know that some forms of giving work better than others, and, as for direct giving to panhandlers, most experts do not see it as an effective anti-hunger gesture (much of that cash goes for cigarettes, beer and vodka). Of course, just about all say giving - or not - to panhandlers is your personal call.
Also know: hunger really is an enormous problem. In New York City alone, 1.4 million people (in a population of 8.4 million) face hunger, said Lisa Sposato, director of food sourcing at City Harvest, a huge operation that distributes about 150,000 pounds of food daily. She added that the need appears to be growing. “We have 1.3 million more visits this year than last,” she says.
Nationally, one in seven Americans struggles to get enough to eat, said Ross Fraser, spokesman with Feeding America. That organization helps feed 46.5 million Americans, through a network of food banks. Fraser added that the families who turn to it for help on average come eight times a year. Senior citizens often are more frequent visitors - “for many we are a regular part of their lives.”
An estimated 8 million Baby Boomers are hungry right now.
How can you help? No matter your budget there are ways to attack hunger. Here are some.
Donate $5 to the Great American Milk Drive is advice from Katy Alexander, a spokesperson for the organization (which is funded by fluid milk producers). Milk, she explained, is one of the most requested items at food pantries, but many struggle to have any supply at all. Milk just is highly perishable, and it needs proper storage. As a result, so many pantries don’t get involved with it. But with this program, that $5 donation gives a pantry a coupon that can be given to a needy person and redeemed at many grocers and convenience stores for milk.
Organize a food drive in your apartment building, at your job, or in your neighborhood, suggested City Harvest's Sposato. Drives are particularly effective around the holidays - when we are all primed to give - and organizations like City Harvest are happy to take the proceeds.
Or just donate to an existing food drive. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship often have food drives around the holiday. Buy an extra bag of groceries on your next shopping trip and donate it, said Sposato. Note: many religiously affiliated operations want only shelf stable goods -- from canned soup and tuna to dry macaroni and rice. Before bringing 20 pounds of fresh - or even frozen - Brussels sprouts be sure the organization can handle the donation. Many cannot.
You don’t have a lot of extra money yourself? Don’t think you can do nothing - you can give of yourself. Volunteer time at a soup kitchen or food bank. In Phoenix at St. Mary’s, one of the nation’s largest food banks, for instance, there’s a continuing need for volunteers to help sort through the incoming food and also to help box outgoing food. Often companies send teams of workers but lone volunteers are welcome. The same is true across the country. Offer to help and you will be embraced.
You want to do something different? Think way outside the hunger box. Sposato said a goal of hers is to get donations of all the uneaten food at meetings and events (how many lunch plates are not even touched?). City Harvest will not take food that has been served - but it could be donated directly from the kitchen. So she is wrestling with the how to of creating a system where New York event attendees indicate they want their meal donated directly to City Harvest. Other organizations in big meetings towns - from Las Vegas to San Francisco and Orlando - could do likewise.
What game changing idea do you have? Share it with groups like City Harvest and Feeding America.
Will all this solve hunger in America? Just about everybody believes that although there are lots of hungry people, there also is a lot of food available to feed them. It’s just a matter of bringing them together, which is where a lot of volunteers come in.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.