Starving for a Solution, Volunteering for Change

by Amanda A. Swan

Do you know where your next meal is coming from? Consider yourself lucky. 12.3% of US households experienced food insecurity during 2016, meaning that they were uncertain where they could obtain enough food for every member of the family to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. That means more than one out of every ten American households struggled to consistently put food on their family’s table, despite the fact that the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. For Americans, poverty is too often imagined as a far off problem, one that exists only in penniless nations across the planet. The reality is that scarcity is your next door neighbor, a dilemma which directly impacts the very people you interact with each and every day.

Although you might imagine the food insecure as people who are homeless or panhandling on the corner, a lot of these hungry people aren’t so different from you. Their children sit in the desks next to your child at school, they pass you in the grocery store while you do your shopping for the week.  A full belly makes it easy to forget that the waiter serving your dinner might have skipped lunch to make sure his daughter could eat. We seldom consider that the smiling barista making our coffee every morning might be wondering when she’ll be able to afford to eat breakfast again.

 

Across America, the working class have increasingly become unnecessary victims of hunger and food uncertainty. When nearly one in five US households with children under 18 worry about feeding their kids, it’s hard to blame the problem on lack of motivation.  With costs of living skyrocketing, working class people must rely more and more on food pantries to support their families. Across the US, the average cost of living for a family with two children is about $65,000. The federal minimum wage currently sits at $7.25 per hour. That means if both parents work full time minimum wage jobs, they’ll still come up nearly $35,000 short of the average cost of living.

This leaves parents to make difficult choices, like buying their child a warm winter jacket instead of feeding themselves breakfast in the morning, or turning the heater on in their apartment instead of packing a lunch. Do I heat or do I eat? That’s not a situation any parent deserves to be in, but it’s especially unfair to parents working extremely hard to support their families.

While changing the reality of income inequality in the US and raising the minimum wage might seem like lofty, out of reach goals, there are things you can do on a local level to help the hungry people in your very own community. Food bank use is at an all time high, and with millions of American relying on these organizations, they desperately need the support of the more fortunate members of their communities. Just scanning local news headlines, you’ll read article after article about food banks across the nation that are “too poor to feed the poor,” and struggling to fill their shelves.

You don’t have to enact enormous political change to help feed your hungry neighbors. As Americans, we are currently living in an intensely controversial political environment, but some things truly shouldn’t be political. Citizens from every leaning and background can agree that food insecurity is a significant issue in the United States. It’s an issue facing even Americans with full time employment. Nobody deserves to starve to death or be malnourished. Feeding hungry Americans is a goal which transcends party lines.

In fact, many believe volunteerism can help us resolve this enormous problem more effectively than political action. Nonprofits fighting American hunger see this reality clearly. They recognize that activism takes many forms, and doesn’t necessarily need to be political. Volunteerism is a special brand of activism that all Americans can participate in, regardless of their political affiliation or opinion.

“We are not trying to change [government] policy,” says Alison Sherman, communications director at the nonprofit organization Food Rescue US. “Our volunteers are the heroes.” Your individual actions can hugely impact the realities of hungry families in America. If you have the time, volunteer regularly at a food pantry or soup kitchen in your local community. If you have the extra financial resources, try to make a regular donation. This can make a world of difference for these local organizations which are chronically understaffed and underfunded.

If you don’t have the time or resources to volunteer or donate on a regular basis, you are still capable of helping hungry people in need. It’s understandable if you aren’t able to contribute on a consistent basis or in these more traditional ways. Even though most people have an inherent desire to volunteer and help others, it can often be difficult to get started and impossible to commit to a schedule. When you are constantly busy with a career, children, or other life responsibilities, it may be inconvenient for you to find time to determine the best way to help others in your community. New concepts of volunteerism, like “food rescuing” might be a better fit for your life.

Food rescue is the concept of diverting edible, healthy food that is disposed of by restaurants and stores from landfills to food banks, where it can help hungry people. With more than 120 million pounds of food being thrown away in the US each year, food rescuing is an incredibly important idea. Even if you can only participate in food rescuing once per week and only load 20 pounds of food in your car, you would save more than 1,000 pounds of food from going to waste in a year. Your individual impact as a food rescuer is enormous. 

That’s why organizations like Sherman’s are committed to making volunteering accessible to everyone and rescuing this food. Co-founder and CEO Kevin Mullins was inspired to innovate the way we feed the hungry when he started Food Rescue US in 2011. Mullins recognized that hundreds of people could be fed by food that we already had. He saw that a shortage of food resources wasn’t America’s problem, the way we were distributing and using these resources was. Vast amounts of restaurant and grocery store leftovers that were destined for the landfill could feed hungry Americans if we could just find a way to get this food to them.

The plan to “rescue” this unused food was extremely successful — the organization has provided more than 21.3 million meals so far, and they’ve saved 32 million pounds of food from the landfill. Now more than ever, the nonprofit needs ordinary community members to help them expand their efforts. They’ve made it simple by designing a creative and modern approach to volunteerism that works from an app on your smartphone. You can download the app and sign up to pick up donated food from grocery stores of all sizes, farms, farmer’s markets, and restaurants and deliver it to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other organizations in your area, all on your own schedule. There’s no minimum time commitment, so you can help others when you have time, even if that’s only once or twice a week.

There’s no questioning the facts. Working class Americans are struggling to feed their families, and food that they could eat is being thrown away. It’s up to us, right now, in this very moment, to decide how we can help these people and the charitable organizations that provide for their needs every day to build stronger, healthier communities. Whether you become involved with a food pantry or kitchen in a traditional volunteer role, donate to support these organizations financially, or give your time when you can by becoming a food rescuer, you will make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table even after a long day at work.

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