Hunger is escalating in America, and its face is changing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Louisiana where food insecurity is rising because of the weak national and local economies, high unemployment and the increased cost of living.
Louisiana currently has the second highest poverty rate in the nation. Like other states, it relies on federal aid to feed those in need, and that aid is in jeopardy — the federal food safety net is at risk as the country discusses how to balance its budget and reduce its deficit. In the House version of the federal budget for 2013, a $133.5 million cut in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka “food stamps”) is a serious threat to the 1 in 6 American households that struggle to put enough food on their tables. In addition, the House-approved budget instructions require deeper cuts in Farm Bill spending, which could affect vital and successful nutrition programs including SNAP, CSFP (Community Food Supplemental Program) and TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program).
Defense trumps food
The House is also proposing to change plowshares into swords by adjusting the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011, reducing cuts to defense spending at the expense of domestic programs for vulnerable Americans, such as the nutrition safety net.
The 46 percent increase in demand that has been experienced over the last five years by Feeding America Food Banks, the nationwide network of food banks, is a testament to the erosion of the American middle class that is watching its prosperity and its future evaporate. This “perfect storm” of circumstances is creating a new face of hunger, as millions of people around the country who never imagined they would rely on charity for their meals, seek emergency food assistance for the first time.
The challenges and opportunities that face the anti-hunger movement parallel the challenges faced by all sectors in post-Katrina New Orleans. Where do we start rebuilding when the very foundations of a community’s prosperity are breached? How do we ensure that we rebuild a community that’s stronger, better and safer than it was before the storms? Innovations and collaborations have been key to the successes so far. Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana is responsible for 23 parishes (our word for counties) in South Louisiana, stretching from the Mississippi to Texas borders. In 2011 alone, more than 26 million pounds of food were distributed to 263,000 people living in these parishes. Perhaps more important, Second Harvest is part of a larger conversation about strengthening the food system in a way that enables all citizens to have access to sufficient healthy food.
New Orleans still recovering
In New Orleans, we have an ongoing situation of urban food deserts, severely exacerbated by the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as well as Gustav and Ike. Nationally, an average of 8,600 people are served by one grocery store, but in New Orleans, that number is more than 15,700. In New Orleans East, 75,000 residents are served by a single store. The Lower Ninth Ward still does not have a full service grocery store at all. Each of these areas suffered a catastrophic impact from the recent storms. Food access problems existed before, but the following six, almost seven years have seen this problem deepen.
In 2011, New Orleans launched a $14-million Fresh Food Retail Initiative, and several new grocery stores are set to open in underserved areas supported, in part, by this initiative. The city’s MarketUmbrella.org has worked tirelessly to support local farmers and fishers to make their bounty available and accessible.
In Louisiana, 1 child in 5 faces hunger
Among youths under age 18 in Louisiana, one in five is at risk of hunger today. The state also has the nation’s highest rate of hunger among children younger than 5 years old. In 2010, more than 84 percent of children in New Orleans public schools qualified for school food under the free and reduced meal program. Only 13 percent of these children had access to a feeding program during the summer months. Many foundations and donors and thousands of volunteers from around the country have been working tirelessly to address these issues.
This spirit of collaboration, which began out of necessity as a response to disaster, has held strong among many nonprofits, faith-based groups and charitable foundations who continue to pool their expertise and resources to create a greater impact. The Emeril Lagasse Foundation has joined with Second Harvest Food Bank, the city of New Orleans, United Way and Share Our Strength with the goal of transforming the picture of summer hunger. Second Harvest opened its 8,500-square-foot community kitchen in June last year, just in time to produce more than 100,000 meals and deliver them to children participating in summer programs at 35 locations in the city.
This summer, the coalition is determined to double the number of meals provided to children in New Orleans. These collaborative initiatives — which provide food where it is needed, greater access to supermarkets and farmers markets, more support for urban gardens and local agriculture, greater utilization of SNAP and other federal benefits — will help blunt the impact of these frightening times for the most vulnerable among us.
Our hope is that what is happening in New Orleans today further enhances the rich food traditions that are part of the city’s heart and soul. Speak out against hunger by letting your congressional representatives know how vital our federal safety net is, and volunteer your time or provide food to your local food bank. There is a food bank in every county in the United States, serving families, friends and neighbors. They desperately need all of our help and support, today and in the future.
Find your local food bank here.
This week’s Zester Soapbox is written by co-contributors Daphne Derven and Natalie Jayroe. Jayroe is president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana. She is also a founding member of the Louisiana Food Bank Assn. and the Food Policy Advisory Committee of the New Orleans City Council. Derven is the Special Projects Manager for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. She was the founding Director of Programs and Development at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York and was also the founding Director of Programs at Copia in Napa.
Photo: Daphne Derven in 2009. Credit: Nola.com