A Thanksgiving pledge

Our view: Maryland could put an end to the costly and debilitating effects of hunger — if we are willing to commit ourselves to the task

November 22, 2011

For most Maryland residents, Thanksgiving means large quantities of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and sauerkraut (it's a Baltimore thing). But it is also a fitting time to remember those who do not have enough to eat.

For all this nation's abundance, hunger is a growing problem. It's not restricted to those living below the poverty line or to only to those residing in certain areas of the state. The economic collapse of 2008 has continued to hit many families hard and, as Maryland Food Bank CEO Deborah Flateman observes, some people "who had the means to write a check of support to food pantries last year are being served by those pantries this year."

During the last fiscal year, the food bank distributed 23.1 million pounds of food, a huge amount by any measure. But it was not enough. Officials calculate that to meet Maryland's needs, they'd need four times as much. "It's scary that with all the programs out there, we're still falling that far short," Ms. Flateman notes. "That's heartbreaking to me."

Experts have a term to measure hunger called food "insecurity." It refers to those who lack the resources to provide themselves an adequate, safe meal. Baltimore is home to the largest food insecure population in the state — 130,050 of the city's 640,000 residents, or about 20 percent. But many suburban counties, home to far fewer people living in poverty, are suffering, too.

The insecurity rate in Baltimore County, for instance, is 11.7 percent, with the majority living above the threshold (200 percent of poverty) to qualify for food stamps (more properly known as the SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). In Anne Arundel, it's 9.1 percent, Carroll, 8.4 percent, Harford, 9.8 percent and Howard, 7.4 percent. Statewide, 466,660 people are food insecure, and it would take almost 78 million meals (at a cost of $203 million) to meet their needs.

Those numbers are daunting, particularly at a time when addressing the federal deficit may force cutbacks on social welfare programs even as the retail price of food is rising. But local government and non-profits have found creative ways to stretch their dollars — using prison inmates to harvest the remains left on farm fields after crops are picked and buying food collectively and in bulk to lower prices.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has publicly called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015. Experts say that while the state has made strides, that objective appears difficult to reach.

Why? Because the additional resources, although welcome, have not kept up with growing demand. Some agencies are seeing far more undernourished people (two or three times as many in some cases) than they saw even one year ago as the unemployed (and underemployed) have gradually wiped out their own savings and personal resources.

Supermarkets and other food suppliers are feeling the pinch as well and finding more lucrative markets for products that are nearing their shelf life rather than donating them. Non-profits are competing for limited cash donations as well.

No doubt many of us think to collect cans for donation this time of year, but hunger is a year-round problem. Food pantries are no longer for emergencies only; they are an important source of nutrition to a large segment of the population.

Food insecurity is not merely an inconvenience or hardship. In pregnant women, it can lead to birth defects, and in children, stunted growth and a greater risk of getting sick. Children who are hungry are less likely to attend school and often suffer from behavioral problems. Paradoxically, food insecurity even contributes to childhood obesity, an epidemic in this country, as parents rely on fast food and other cheap but unhealthy meals.

Those who are hungry are more often sick and more likely to require hospitalization. That can be expensive to society as a whole as taxpayers inevitably bear the burden for hunger-related educational, mental health and juvenile justice services.

What can the average person do about it? Certainly, they can lobby elected officials to adequately fund food programs. But perhaps most essentially, people can donate to those non-profit organizations that are bridging the gap, not only the Maryland Food Bank but the hundreds of charities that operate pantries and soup kitchens across the state.

It is within our capacity to end hunger in Maryland, if not in this country. Thanksgiving provides an opportune moment to pledge ourselves to that important task.

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