Hungry for change

The US department of agriculture says tens of millions of Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Just as the sun is rising, they slowly shuffle up the steps, waiting for the red doors to open.

The unseasonably warm weather helps. The aches in their bones aren’t so bad as they try to shake off the stiffness and pain of another night on the streets. 

Many have a favourite spot to sleep in, and this is where they choose to go for breakfast.

They file in quietly and take their seats. Some read the newspapers left for them, while others just lay their heads down and enjoy the silence.

The menu today is chilli and beans. There are sausages and toast, and even a bit of cake. The spoonful of each they collect may not seem like much by American standards but for the seventy or so people who pass through this free food kitchen in the hall of a church, it is enough. 

It’s a hot meal they can count on. It means, for a few hours, they won’t have the ache of hunger in their stomachs, or the worry of when they might eat next.

Errol Ware visits the hall on the five days it’s open. He’s been unemployed for a while, and to him the free breakfast is very welcome: “It makes a big difference, everyone has to eat and I’m very glad it’s here, very glad.” 

The numbers here are rising. People who used to drop off food for the shelter are now appearing for meals. 

Larry Johnston says he been forced to turn to the centre a number of times after losing his job. He’s had three this year and been laid off from them all.  “It’s the economy,” he says as if no further explanation is needed. He has another job interview lined up in a few days time.

Johnston believes his story should serve as a warning: “People are just one event away from becoming homeless and with the global financial crisis it could happen to anyone.”

But it’s not just the homeless that need help. The financial crisis has brought many problems to America, and now what they call food insecurity can be added to the list.

The food kitchen has seen more families timidly turn up at the door, not sure what to expect. Matthew Lane who runs the centre says there are also more young single women than before: “It’s all because they’ve lost their job or had their hours cut and so are struggling to pay the bills. You know they are not sure what to do, they’re a bit proud but they are also hungry.”

New figures reveal that 50 million Americans go to bed hungry three or four nights a week. 17 million of those are children, that’s one in four. And more than half of them are under the age of six. 

Essentially, in a country that dumped 96 billion tones of food last year, millions of people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And that, says the US department of agriculture, is food insecurity.

Tony Hall is a former congressman from Ohio. A trip to Ethiopia in the 1980s affected him deeply, and he decided after spending days watching people die all around him that he would channel his efforts into fighting hunger.  

Now Hall heads the Washington DC based Alliance to End Hunger. He believes there is no political will to tackle the problem. He tells me “I don’t believe anyone should go to bed hungry in America ever again. We have the ability to do it but we don’t have leadership at the top. I’m talking the President of the United States or a Senator or a Governor to take this and make it their number one issue and say look no-one’s ever going to go to bed hungry on my watch”.  

Last year families receiving emergency food assistance in America reported they were left with many difficult choices every day what bills to pay, where to spend any money they have and whether they can afford to eat today.

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