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As We Celebrate Thanksgiving, Many Still Go Hungry

This week, we are featuring a new series to  honor “Women Who Serve.” As we begin our celebrations and traditions this Thanksgiving, our Women’s Voices writers will share daily stories of the women in their communities who have exemplified a beautiful spirit of service to others.  To start us off, Diane Vacca reminds us of the sobering problem of hunger that still plagues many of our nation’s families and an interfaith collaboration in her Manhattan neighborhood aiming to fight it. —Ed.


On the farmstands, harvest colors of crimson and gold compete for attention. The leaves boast their last, gorgeous hurrah, and the bounty of the fields compensates for the lengthening nights and intensifying chill. Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and with it anticipation of warm reunions with friends and family and the traditional groaning board.

But not for everybody. More than 1 in 7 Americans only dream of a feast — anything, really, to quiet the hunger they live with every day. The rest of us go about our busy lives, aware of poverty, but only as an abstraction. We haven’t experienced food insecurity, the limited or uncertain and irregular access to nutritious meals. America’s amber waves of grain feed the world, while 16 million American children — more than 1 in 5 — go to bed hungry. It’s even worse for African-American children: One in every three does not eat healthy meals regularly.

Their parents are hungrier still when they deprive themselves by sharing or giving what food they have to their children. They may also be sick or disabled, because their undernourished bodies are susceptible to disease.

People who are food insecure feed their families with cheap, but mostly empty calories, foods that not only lack essential nutrients but cause obesity and diabetes. Malnutrition keeps children from thriving. It impacts every aspect of a child’s development — mental, physical and emotional, so children who are food insecure will likely not do well in school. They may have social and behavioral problems that hinder their ability to learn or stay in a classroom.

Providing some assistance are soup kitchens, which may offer a full meal, and food pantries, which have fresh and canned food for people to take home and prepare. Food stamps, now called SNAP, the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can help low-income individuals save money on healthy food. (Though not so much as before the recent and proposed budget cuts that greatly reduced SNAP’s funding.)

Food insecurity usually follows unemployment, which is devastating for a family. Gaby’s story is not unusual. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and three small children:

When we first got married our lives were pretty stable. We had a place to live and both of us worked full time. We could pay the bills; we could buy our children the things they needed. But then I lost my job and things went downhill from there.

Josh lost his job the year after I did. We had just moved into a new home so the loss was especially tough. We did everything we could to find other work but apparently it just wasn’t enough. Today, we are down to our last dime. After the bills are paid, there is no money left. In fact, there is no money to pay the bills. We constantly have to make tough choices like choosing between buying diapers and paying the light bill. . .  If it wasn’t for the food bank, we would definitely have to choose between paying for utilities and buying food. . . .We never thought our lives would turn out like this – no one does.

Houses of worship, interfaith coalitions and community associations labor to feed the hungry. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example, an interfaith coalition and a community center collaborate with each other. The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (SPSA) sponsors the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) together with the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Between them, they arrange for social services that provide legal, financial and job counseling, as well as exercise and medical services, like flu shots and HIV and blood pressure screening.

SPSA, the church, remodeled its basement to house a food pantry and an enviable professional kitchen for volunteers to prepare meals and for the jobless to learn new skills. It also has space for, among other things, donated clothing and an overnight shelter for homeless women.

WSCAHpantryThe WSCAH Food Pantry


Shopping inside the WSACH pantry.

The WSCAH pantry is set up as a supermarket, its shelves laden with fresh produce, grains, meat, eggs and canned goods. Rather than hand out prepacked bags, WSCAH pioneered the supermarket model because “we discovered that people were much better at figuring out what they needed than we were. They knew what they had at home, what their family would eat and what they preferred culturally,” SPSA’s Rev. K Karpen told me. Most of the work is done by volunteers, many of them clients or former clients of the pantry. Helping out, even while they need food themselves, gives them dignity, Rev. K said.

The clients may fill their carts with three days’ worth of groceries once a month. Many of them are the working poor. They struggle and barely manage to get by. When they come to the pantry, they can take an exercise class, learn how to apply for food stamps and take advantage of the other community services.

In the last 20 years, WSCAH has increased its food distribution by 747 percent. I asked Executive Director Stewart Desmond how many of their clients “graduate.” Despite WSCAH’s effort and growth, Desmond said, “It’s hard to find real success stories. We help, but we don’t do miracles.”

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