The Real Hunger Games

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A few nights ago I found myself in the lobby of my church in northwest Atlanta preparing sack lunches for 1,800 needy children.

Since I live in upscale Cobb County, Ga., I wondered, why is this needed? I’ve since learned that the almost 2,000 children on the receiving end of these sack lunches really need this and would suffer without the daily distribution by volunteers at MUST Ministries. I discovered, this “feeding program” is continued all summer long Monday through Friday in neighborhoods all around Cobb County with the lunches being delivered to needy children who normally qualify for the free breakfast or lunch programs at school, but are now “food insecure” during the summer.

What is going on? According to the third biggest charity in our country, Feeding America,   the food insecurity rate for children is currently 21.6 percent. Children’s Health Watch says “food security is defined as access by all household members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity, by contrast, is limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious foods for all household members…”

In food insecurity households, which may include several children, the limited incomes may be going to pay rent, medical bills, and heat or transportation costs, with little income left over to provide more than the basic nutrition.

According to Feed America there are 37 million American households relying on food pantries, food banks, soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Despite the fact that 41 percent of these households receive government assistance, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, many are finding that the benefits aren’t meeting all of the household’s needs for nutrition. And, in urban areas there may be a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables to provide a healthy diet. And, according to the USDA, the average SNAP payment is $133 per household member per month. In 2008 only 9 percent of Americans were signed up for the SNAP program, but that number has increased to 14.5 percent in 2012.

Since 2006 the number of Americans receiving emergency food assistance has increased 27 percent according to Feeding America. The clients served by Feeding America have an average monthly household income of $940, with 70 percent living below the federal poverty line.

In the Great Depression, the images of hunger were homeless tramps traversing the country looking for work and standing in long lines outside of soup kitchens. Today’s Great Recession’s visuals include hungry children who travel with a parent to the local church or synagogue to pick up a box of groceries. Even Kennesaw State University, located in Cobb County, saw the need for developing a food bank program in 2006 as a joint program sponsored by the KSU Health Clinic and the KSU Staff Senate to meet the needs of hungry students and their families.

According to research published by Feed America, the District of Columbia had the largest number of children (under age 18) who were listed as falling into the category as food insecure. Other states include: Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

Another difficulty for children living in impoverished areas is that it often costs more to feed a family than in wealthier areas that might have several WalMart, Target or Kroger stores. The WalMart Foundation has a Hunger Relief program with a pledge to provide $2 billion in cash and in-kind donations to solve the hunger issue in communities where the stores are located. The WalMart stores are also lending logistics expertise to local food banks to allow them to better serve their burgeoning populations.

The good news for my MUST Ministries sack lunch kids is that the summer is almost over and most will head back to school and have access to the federal school breakfast and lunch program. Last summer volunteers with MUST Ministries, headquartered in Marietta, Ga., delivered 141,893 lunches to children in six counties. These volunteers, which included university students, churches and members of synagogues, kept these children fed for the 10 weeks of summer break, but more than the kids’ tummies were filled, since many received a free book every Friday to keep them up to speed and ready to start back to school in September.

So the next time you hear an appeal for donations to your local food bank or see a barrel for donations of canned goods, remember the fresh faces of hungry children who may be living next door to you. Give generously. Mother Teresa, working in some of the most impoverished areas of the world inspires me by saying, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

After a quick hour spent packing lunches, my husband and I went home, humbled by the bounty that is contained within our home. It reminded me of   the Book of Proverbs where it says, “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor. (Prov. 22:9).

I drove home feeling very blessed.

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