This morning I helped fix food to serve about 150 people for lunch. Here is the menu:
Roasted chicken thighs
Lettuce salad with fresh tomatoes, carrots, celery
Peas and cheese salad
Buttered rolls, white or wheat
Six days a week, volunteers prepare, serve, and clean up lunch for 100 or more people. The counts have run high recently, with well over 100 stopping in for this free meal.
For many of the customers, this is the only meal they get for the day. Many of them fill their plates, and once the line is opened for “seconds,” they come through again.
The food quality is high, the service is friendly, and the price is… astoundingly high. Though patrons do not pay a penny for their meals, the circumstances that lead them to the free lunch program take a tremendous toll.
Long-term unemployment and underemployment, medical expenses, mental health problems, education expenses, and other issues all lead community members to the free lunch line. They are veterans, they are students, they are retirees, they are working poor. They are hungry, and people gotta eat.
How much of a problem is hunger in America? In 2011 low food security impacted almost one in six Americans. According to the US Department of Agriculture,
An estimated 85.1 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2011, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.9 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security-meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
[The USDA uses the term “food insecurity” instead of “hunger” to improve the measurability and objectiveness of the measure. Regardless of term, too many people in the U.S. have trouble feeding themselves and/or someone in their household, due to lack of money or other resources.]
So How Can You Help?
Nationally there are a lot of organizations working to end hunger, at least for today. Many of them may work in your community. Soup kitchens, food pantries, Meals on Wheels, and food rescue organizations all provide opportunities for volunteers year round!
Soup kitchens/free food lines. These groups need help every day they serve. In my community, a hearty lunch is served six days a week. Clients can come back for seconds, and if there are leftovers, they can carry them out, as well.
What kind of help is needed? Check with your local group. On a daily basis food must be prepped and served; dishes and work space must be cleaned. If you want client-facing duty, you probably can do that. If you prefer prep or clean-up, there’s plenty to do there, too!
Besides daily duty, your group may need organizational help, writing grant proposals, scheduling volunteers, or other administrative services.
Food pantries/food banks. Here again, hundreds of volunteer hours are needed to make these work. The food pantries in our area all belong to a larger network. Though they have common sources of food, they staff independently with volunteers. Again, client-facing people are needed as well as those to write grant proposals, pick up and deliver food, clean the facility, etc.
My nearest food pantry provides food as well as some children’s clothing. When I volunteered yesterday (first time but not my last!) I sorted clothing to transition from fall/winter to spring/summer items.
Meal on Wheels. As of a year ago, my local Meals on Wheels group had almost 200 clients to whom they delivered food regularly. Imagine how many volunteers are needed to prepare, pick up, and deliver these meals. Volunteers often develop personal relationships with clients, and they can be on the front lines for noticing when circumstances for someone have deteriorated.
Find out how you can help from the Meals on Wheels volunteer webpage.
Food rescue, also called food recovery, is the practice of safely retrieving edible food that would otherwise go to waste, and distributing it to those in need.The recovered food is edible, but often not saleable. Products that are at or past their “sell by” dates or are imperfect in any way – a bruised apple or day-old bread – are donated by grocery stores, food vendors, restaurants, and farmers markets. Other times, the food is unblemished, but restaurants may have made or ordered too much, or may have edible pieces of food (such as scraps of fish or meat) that are byproducts of process of preparing foods to cook and serve. In addition, food manufacturers may donate product that marginally fails quality control or that has become short-dated.
In my community, a group called Table to Table moves edible food from restaurants, coffee shops, groceries, drug stores, and institutional kitchens to recipient agencies. Those agencies are the same food pantries, free lunch lines, and Meals on Wheels-type organizations mentioned above. This is an essential link in the chain that helps feed the hungry.
Find Out More
To find out more about hunger in America and how you can help, visit feedingamerica.org.