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Manna from Manna
Suburban Montgomery County, Maryland is not the kind of place you’d expect to find hunger. It is the 10 th richest county in America with a median income of almost $93,000 in 2011, and it also happens to be where I live.
Hunger exists in Montgomery County as it does in the 9 counties where the median income is even higher. I haven’t witnessed it everywhere myself, but working for Bread for the World Institute, I have access to this information and I talk to enough people who are working to reduce hunger in such places.
Rural and urban areas of the US have a higher share of people who experience hunger, but the suburbs are home to more of them in absolute numbers. Manna Food Center has been operating for 30 years, so hunger in the county is not a new phenomenon.
Hunger in suburban areas is largely hidden. Because it’s not supposed to happen here, the victims suffer more shame for their condition, which drives them out of plain view. At the symposium I was talking to a man who had recently lost his job and was getting food from Manna and using the SNAP program to feed his wife, himself and their three children. He was telling me that while at the bus stop in the morning, he saw two adults come walking out of a wooded area. Before he became impoverished, the sight of these people would not have registered with him. He now knows people who are living in those woods, homeless.
Since 1983, Manna has distributed 43 million pounds of food to 2.7 million residents of the county. Last year, Manna gave food to 41,000 households and worked with 50 partner agencies. You don’t have that kind of reach without the infrastructure to make it possible, and this includes a warehouse where food donations arrive daily, trucks dropping off food packages at delivery points around the county, and an army of staff and volunteers to make sure the system operates officially. Manna’s volunteers put in 52,000 hours of service last year.
Minnerva Delgado, Manna’s executive director, asked if I would speak at the symposium. When she called to offer a spot at the end to talk about advocacy, I had just finished reading an article called “The Problem with Food Banks” in the online journal Salon, and it seemed too weird a coincidence to resist, so I said sure. The article is about food banks in Canada, written by Nick Saul, a Canadian, and it reminded me of a book published in the US back in the early 90s. Sweet Charity, by Janet Poppendieck, is essential reading for anyone who is helping to feed the hungry in the US.
In the article, Saul expresses the same conflict Poppendieck described in Sweet Charity:
“Yet each time I visit such warehouses, I find myself alternating between hope and despair. Hope born of the understanding that all of this is motivated by the human urge to help others with that most basic of needs: food. Despair because this effort, and that of food banks all over Canada, has not solved the problem of hunger. On the contrary, I believe food banking makes it worse.
Worse—but how can that be? As he says,
“It is time to have a frank conversation about the limitations of this approach and start harnessing that caring and the engagement with food issues into a new political force. We need to ask ourselves and our elected representatives how we can make real, lasting change, and ensure that everyone finds health and dignity at our nation’s table.”
Sweet Charity came to much the same conclusion. I have written about Sweet Charity at different times for Bread for the World Institute. I decided to go back not only to what I’d written but to my notes about the book and I came across this passage in a review of the book by Larry Brown, the former director of the National Center on Hunger and Poverty at the Harvard School of Public Health.
“While charity feeds the poor, it also has become the basis for complacency. If the poor have food, they are no threat to the status quo. If volunteers feel they have done "something to help," they have little need to probe into the causes of hunger and the impact of charitable programs. And political leaders point to the "limits of government" and the effectiveness of "public-private partnerships" as the excuse for not using the apparatus of public policy to protect people from hunger as is done in other wealthy industrialized nations.”
The emphasis is mine. I thought what Brown had to say in the last sentence adds an important point to the statement above. Bread for the World has engaged with policymakers since the 1970s. Here we are in 2013, engaged again – fighting the same battles we fought before. It takes more than engagement.
It used to be that we could tell policymakers in the US, you know, other rich countries don’t have hunger like we have here. I’m not sure it had any effect, but was a reminder to ourselves at least that the US is an anomaly, and that any one of these days our policymakers could easily snap out of their indifference. Based on the news from up north, we probably underestimated the export potential of our indifference.
At the symposium, I congratulated my hosts on their 30 years of service. I exhorted them to keep up the good work, and like my predecessors in this endeavor, I urged them to take up advocacy regardless of how frustrating it seems.
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