Addressing Hunger

Local leaders plan a summit to discuss how to lessen hunger in Pima County

Hunger pains gnaw daily at thousands of local people, including many children. Yet to most of us, it is an invisible and unknown demon.

Estimates are that almost 60,000 kids in Pima County miss between eight and 19 meals each month. One new effort to address that problem on a neighborhood level is being waged at Erickson Elementary School on Tucson's southeast side. Using food supplied and packaged by St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, along with backpacks donated by Tucson Electric Power Company, 65 children get to take home food for the weekend each week.

This program supplements the free breakfast and lunch served weekdays at the school, but because of a shortage of funds, it doesn't come close to meeting the demand. School officials believe they could probably assist 50 more children if enough money was available.

There is a little good news on the hunger front, though. The number of emergency food boxes distributed by the Community Food Bank went down ever so slightly last year. But it still totaled 110,000, and the small 3,000-box decrease was probably caused by the Food Bank's success at its regular food distribution sites.

Another alarming statistic is the state's ranking concerning hunger. Arizona places 44th in terms of food security, with 13 percent of the population having limited or uncertain access to an adequate diet.

According to a recent report entitled, "A Blueprint to End Hunger," prepared by NAHO (National Anti-Hunger Organizations): "In industrialized countries, the United States is the only nation that still tolerates widespread hunger within its borders."

To address this depressing situation as it impacts Pima County, a Hunger Summit will be held Thursday, Sept. 23. According to Lynn Perez-Hewitt, community relations manager for the Food Bank, "We hope it is informative about who is, and who is not, hungry, along with being inspiring. We want to look at what hunger is costing us and what can be done. Our goal is awareness plus legislative action."

Perez-Hewitt indicates that among those invited are local politicians and state legislators. Republican Rep. Pete Hershberger, chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Hunger, will likely be attending.

"With a conservative mentality, we're not a child and family-friendly state," Hershberger admits. "We have a long way to go to understand what government's role is in helping to make people self-sufficient."

While Hershberger thinks Tucson is doing the best it can concerning hunger, and is highly complimentary of the Food Bank, he believes his committee may be able to do more.

"We can help coordinate (food programs) through communication and try to get the best bang for the buck," he says. Stressing that public schools are one place the state government can be more active, he adds, "We want to deal with both hunger and nutrition (there)."

But in a nation that offers hundreds of breakfast cereal choices to shoppers, why should anyone be hungry? Poverty is one cause, according to Perez-Hewitt, along with lack of information.

"People just don't know about the programs available," she says. "We're not getting the information out into the right channels. Hunger isn't one of the glamour issues that gets a lot of play on TV."

Even though many households living below the federal poverty level include someone who works full-time, hunger is still a problem for many of them. "Poor people have to make hard choices," Perez-Hewitt points out, "and food is a place they have a little movement."

There are other reasons she lists for people being hungry in a land of plenty. One is access to major grocery stores--some parts of town don't have one, leaving people to shop at more expensive convenience marts. Another is a lack of knowledge of what constitutes a healthy diet.

To address these and other reasons for hunger, policy makers and elected officials tend to avoid confronting underlying causes such as poverty, a lack of education and of medical care for millions of Americans. Instead, they focus on Band-Aid approaches, efforts that Perez-Hewitt believes just won't work.

"They're designed to get people through the week," she says. "But to end hunger will be much more complex and require a lot of coordination. It's a natural human inclination to avoid complex issues, but we can't end hunger without coordination and cooperation."

For his part, former Food Bank Director Punch Woods believes solutions to hunger must be addressed at a national level and should include a living-wage for employees along with other changes. All that can be done locally, he says, as a response to hunger.

"The community needs to understand that donating food is not a solution to hunger," Woods emphasizes. "It's a response."

To address local hunger more forcibly, Woods hopes the summit recommends the formation of a Hunger Task Force-Food Security Council. To be a public/private partnership comprised of a cross-section of the community, it would be modeled after existing organizations that address economic development and other important issues. "We can't solve the hunger problem by just feeding folks," Woods concludes.

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