Food Banks Fill In The Gap On Thanksgiving
ALLISON KEYES, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, as relatives gather for Thanksgiving, we look at who gets invited to the table and how the definition of family in America is changing. But first, to the food.
Thanksgiving brings to mind that scrumptious dinner of turkey, ham, or even tofu in some places. But many Americans are going hungry. Last year, the government reported more than 17 million households didn't have access to enough food. It's a state known as food insecurity, and it's at the highest rate since the first national survey was done in 1995.
Part of the problem is people don't have the money to buy enough food to stay healthy. The report also found that households most likely to go hungry are headed by single parents. People of color, along with those who live in big cities are also at risk.
Even the food banks are having trouble keeping up. We wondered whether there is still a major piece of the solution to the problem, so we decided to call Mark Winne, author of a new book called "Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardners, and Smart Cooking Mamas."
We also have with us Lynn Brantley, president of CEO of Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., and Rachel Bristol, CEO of Oregon Food Bank. Welcome to you all.
Ms. LYNN BRANTLEY (President/CEO, Capital Area Food Bank, Washington DC): Good to be here.
Ms. RACHEL BRISTOL (CEO, Oregon Food Bank): Thank you.
Mr. MARK WINNE (Author): Hello.
KEYES: Let's go back to the numbers for a bit. I mean, this puts hunger in its highest level in 15 years. Rachel, are you at all shocked to hear that?
Ms. BRISTOL: No, I'm sure not. From what we've been seeing, double-digit increases for the last three years.
KEYES: How bad is it in Oregon, and how does that rank nationally?
Ms. BRISTOL: According to the USDA survey, Oregon is in the top five. Some say we're number three, but really there's so little difference between the top five that it's bad. Essentially, despite having 730,000 households on food stamps and a statewide network that moved 72 million pounds of food last year, seven percent of our population is still going hungry.
KEYES: Lynn, that same Department of Agriculture report showed that the number of households getting emergency food from pantries almost doubled between 2007 and 2009. Is that pretty much what you're seeing in Washington?
Ms. BRANTLEY: Oh, that definitely is what we've been feeling for the past couple years actually. Our agencies are seeing anywhere between 30 to 200 percent increases in terms of the numbers of people coming to the door. And the greatest number of people are coming in the suburban area. That's where the numbers are growing most rapidly.
KEYES: Which sounds surprising, because I guess I thought cities would be in more dire straits.
Ms. BRANTLEY: I think there's a different kind of poverty in cities oft times, and it's not quite as movable. And I think a lot of the jobs are in the suburban areas. And so consequently thats where the effect is being felt.
KEYES: How is Capital Area Food Bank dealing?
Ms. BRANTLEY: Well, we're pushing hard. We've gone from 20 million to 27 million pounds in the past two years, and we're aiming for 30 this year. And it's moving out at a rate of 30 percent faster than year before.
KEYES: Rachel, how are you getting food distributed there?
Ms. BRISTOL: We're seeing a decline in recent months in industry donations, and are watching the food prices closely. Some of the things that we buy in bulk are going up rapidly, like rice went up 35 percent in a three-day period a couple weeks ago. We're now purchasing about 20 percent of the 38 to 40 million pounds of food we're moving.
KEYES: Mark, I know you have some issues with food banks, which we will address later, but I wonder, do you think a big part of the problem here is that the government just isn't doing enough to make sure people have access to food?
Mr. WINNE: Well, I don't think the government is doing enough to address the root causes of hunger. If you look at some of those food insecurity figures, you'll see that up to two-thirds of the families who are food insecure actually had either part-time or full-time workers in their households. So people are working, they're making money, but they're not making enough money to buy food.
KEYES: In other words, there's a gap in between what they're bringing home, being able to pay rent, and put actual food on the table. So what do you do at that point?
Mr. WINNE: Food banks are playing a very vital role right now, there's no argument with that. I think long term we have to ask ourselves if we are going to continue to meet the needs of a nation through food banks and even through food stamps, or are we going to try to get down to the root causes and address the sort of chronic underemployment and low wages and other conditions, economic and social conditions which are driving these hunger and food insecurity rates?
KEYES: You were saying low income, what are some of the other causes?
Mr. WINNE: Well, we have tremendous wealth disparities in this country. The richest among us are making upwards to on average, the top 400 highest income earners in 2008 were making $345 million each on average. And only paying on average 16 percent in taxes.
As we look at the government's ability to be able to help those who are in need and to try to spur economic growth, they're hamstrung by the fact that they don't have the revenue because we are favoring those with the greatest wealth. And that's, you know, been the story for a long time in the United States.
We're - again, we're just not going to focus on poverty reduction. Instead we are focusing on food relief.
Ms. BRANTLEY: Well, I think when food banks first began to really...
KEYES: And this is Lynn, by the way.
Ms. BRANTLEY: Oh, excuse me. When food banks first came into being back in the late 70's, early 80's, the average American income grew from 1950 to 1980. There are two economists that put these numbers together. And they found that in that time, in those 30 years, the average American, nine out of ten Americans, their income increased by 75 percent.
From 1980 to now, the average American income has grown by only $303. And that's again in 2008 dollars. So you can see where we're moving as a nation, and you can see why food banks came into being. People were seeing things happening in their neighborhoods and they had to respond. They couldn't just allow people to go hungry.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. And we are talking about the causes and solutions to hunger.
We have Lynn Brantley of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C.; Rachel Bristol of Oregon Food Bank; and Mark Winne, author of a new book called "Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardners, and Smart Cooking Mamas."
And Rachel, I wonder, are you seeing a different kind of people come into your food bank this year than you have before?
Ms. BRISTOL: It's really again been the last couple years. Yes, actually one of the wealthiest counties in Oregon just to the west of Portland has had the most rapid increase not only in requests for emergency food, but in poverty.
So we've really seen a lot of people were forced out of the Portland area with the housing boom. They could no longer afford housing. They're now living in older apartment buildings in small towns and communities that really weren't set up to serve the kind of need that they've been seeing. So that's an area where we've been doing a lot of outreach. We've seen demand go up 60 percent in that one county alone just in two years.
KEYES: Wow. But Mark, here's my question. I know you've been critical of food banks on the grounds that you think they're going about this the wrong way. Explain that, if you could.
Mr. WINNE: I think that food banks are doing what is necessary now. My critique has been, are they doing enough to try to address the root causes and get beyond the situation where we have to keep getting more donated food and build bigger food banks?
I think that food banks have enormous social and moral capital that they have built up over the last well, 30 years, and it's time for them to use that to address these underlying causes. And that means essentially getting political about what's going on and not always making the kind of concessions that they're often forced to make in a community to make sure that their donors continue to support them or that they have funding available for the next capital campaign or warehouse expansion.
Ms. BRANTLEY: Mark, I'm not sure I know what you mean by concessions. But when you have a country that's lost 40,000 manufacturing plants within the past two years, when you have six million manufacturing jobs disappearing, and having a rippling effect, and closing down whole towns out in Iowa and Evansville, Indiana, you know, this goes far beyond what a food bank is capable of doing or even was brought into being to do.
You know, speaking truth to power is definitely a very important thing to do, and fighting for food stamps, and fighting for the things that will help stabilize families. But it's an overwhelming thing for a food bank to overcome the fact that so many jobs are disappearing, going overseas, and the mortgage crisis and what has happened to people with their homes.
So these are troubling times in terms of an economic tsunami that's happening to us. And it takes more than a food bank coming at these issues.
KEYES: Let me ask Rachel a question, because in Oregon, if I'm not wrong, you guys have an advocacy piece to what you guys are doing. Talk to us a bit about that.
Ms. BRISTOL: Absolutely. Since 1990 actually we've been engaged in public policy work at the local, state, and national levels trying to deal with some of these issues, supporting a higher minimum wage. Oregon has the second highest minimum wage in the country and we were a part of that. And it was challenging, and not everyone agreed. But we needed to walk our talk.
Also in the early 90's we established a living wage for our own employees that we don't want our own employees having to get emergency food boxes. And I, you know, I agree with Mark, the power - we do have power. And the one thing about having these big facilities is it's an opportunity to engage the community. And we've been very thoughtful about inviting businesses and their employees to use our facilities, and then to help us in repacking food and educating folks about the underlying causes of hunger.
KEYES: Speaking of engaging the community, Lynn, I want to give you the last word and ask you - what can people do if they want to help during this holiday season and beyond?
Ms. BRANTLEY: Well, there's any number of ways. I think by calling the food bank, first off. We do advocacy as well, so people can jump into those sorts of things. They can have a canned food drive. They can be better educated about what the issues are and what causes hunger and poverty.
There are any avenues. To call your local food banks, to reach out. We're in the community. You can find and go into and understand the problem.
KEYES: Lynn Brantley is president and CEO of Capital Area Food Bank. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Rachel Bristol is CEO of Oregon Food Bank, and joined us from NPR member station OPB in Portland, Oregon. Mark Winne is author of a new book called "Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cooking Mamas." He joined us from NPR station KANW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Thank you all for your thoughts and insights.
Ms. BRISTOL: Thank you.
Ms. BRANTLEY: Thank you so much.
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