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Hunger Still Persists in a Month of Plenty

Conference overview
by Jeff Saviano


Around one hundred people met in Raleigh to strengthen their fight against hunger in our state—and against the poverty which causes it.

Would you be at all surprised to read that people in this state, in this year, in this century, still have to battle against the problem of hunger?

If so, surprise! They do.

Of course, the look of hunger is different here than you may imagine from those charity commercials on TV asking you to give money to help hungry children in Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

Instead, in North Carolina you will find that people who struggle to be able to have nutritious food regularly are not in one particular area, from one particular community.

Most people will never see it when a mother opens her refrigerator and knows that she must somehow fill its empty shelves if her children are to eat, but there's just no more money in the bank, and the rent can't be delayed anymore, and she hopes she may be able to turn to the food bank for help.

If you think that it's ridiculous—even evil—that anyone in this incredibly wealthy nation must worry about their food supply, then you probably would agree with the members of the North Carolina Hunger Network, which held its 6th annual conference on September 26 & 27.

As every year, the main theme again was "Beyond Charity," with the added theme of "Food Security—For the People and By the People." In other words, the Hunger Network members want our society to move beyond the "charity" approach of feeding the hungry, which treats the problem of hunger as though it were an accidental or temporary situation which should be helped mainly by having people who can afford to give money or time to help with food banks or soup kitchens.

Now, many Hunger Network members rely on, run, or volunteer for food banks and charities, so they of course know that these programs are needed. The point is that they're tired of these programs being needed. Many of the members want to work toward "Food Security," which our society will achieve when all its people have continuous and consistent access to nutritious and culturally acceptable food. (That's more or less how the United Nations defines "Food Security.")

That means that, yes, people struggling with poverty and hunger need to develop self-help programs, but the main goal shouldn't be to keep struggling with the same old problems but to change our social and economic systems so that poor people will not have to struggle with hunger.

Those who attended the conference represented churches, food banks, small farmers, lower-income or public housing communities, nonprofit or social service agencies, even as representatives of a small, all-volunteer newspaper. Most of the representatives were women.

Since the conference was dealing in part with poverty, the effects of welfare reform was a big topic of discussion. I heard from a lot of people who are tired of being perceived as a 'problem' because they need public assistance, and they're sick of being portrayed as greedy and lazy.

For example, in a morning discussion which was supposedly about 'Who controls our food supply?' I listened as many women angrily confronted representatives of social service agencies with strong questions.

When one agency official mentioned that some older people never even came to claim their food stamps, some women asked if anyone would be surprised when impoverished senior citizens did not pick up their food stamps when their supply has been cut to $10 a month. Others wondered how anyone could justify asking a poor mother on the verge of economic (if not physical and mental) collapse to pay back some of her food stamps because her income had risen slightly.

The agency officials who were there, especially those representing the 'Division of Economic Independence' and NC's Work First programs, took the greatest heat and seemed surprised at the high level of anger among those questioning them.

Someone like Wilbert Morris, of the NC Department of Health & Human Services' 'Division of Economic Independence,' could of course answer these questions by coldly and calmly explaining the regulations under which these agencies work. He didn't attempt to justify any of these rotten rules, though it would have been better if he had emphasized the role of the politicians who had made them. And indeed, after some seriously tough questions were tossed at him, some women behind me started mentioning amongst themselves that, after all, he didn't have the authority to make things different.

But such officials seem accustomed to an environment in which people acknowledge them as leaders, in which women who are tired of worrying about their or their neighbors' children eating well enough do not stand up and tell agency leaders off, no matter how true or meaningful the women's words are.

Peter Leousis, the Governor's Assistant Secretary for Children, Youth, and Families—the 'architect' of NC's Work First program to move people off of state and federal assistance—was scheduled to show up for a Saturday morning breakfast and discussion. He neither showed nor gave any excuse, according to conference co-organizer Renée Price. (Perhaps he heard of the grilling given to the other members of state agencies and decided his time was too important to listen to the concerns of people about to suffer the consequences of his own changes to public assistance programs.)

Fortunately for us all, young people see right through silly excuses about why many people in our society have to deal with poverty and hunger. On Friday night, youth from age 5 to high-school seniors presented stories, essays, poems and prayers they had written which basically all demanded that the rest of us stop making excuses. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, but more importantly, recognize people having hard times are just as human, just as significant, just as deserving of respect and love as those who are well-fed, smartly dressed, lavishly housed.

When a five year old girl stands up at a podium and tells you that there don't have to be all these hungry people that she sees, that 'we' should feed them, it's hard to keep a dry eye. 'Well,' you might say, 'what do you expect from such a naive little person, who doesn't understand the complicated economic rules which run this country?'

Which is wiser, or more mature? Cute words from this little girl or the cold barkings of hard-hearted, 'grown-ups' in government and in giant companies who learned enough wrong things about the world to believe that the higher corporate profit margins are, the better it will be for everyone? The people who say that poor people are poor because they're lazy, or lack the culture of achievement that the rich share? Or who say that the reason people are poor and hungry is because federal and state governments give them a little bit of public assistance?

Thankfully, the North Carolina Hunger Network members know better. They also know that the point is to activate the kinds of people who need an economy which is fair and just, and on top of that they actually do everything possible to help people organize themselves.

  To contact the NC Hunger Network, call (919) 821-5300 or write to their office at P.O. Box 12007, Raleigh NC 27605.  

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