By JEANNE LISTON
“It seems absurd to have to say it, but no one in this country should go hungry.” This statement by Mark Bittman concluded a thoughtful piece recently posted on The New York Times website, titled “Hunger in Plain Sight.” In his blog, Bittman notes the hurdles that food banks in modern America have to overcome to meet their basic mission: keeping people fed. It does seem absurd, in this prosperous nation, that people are actually going hungry. But the fact is that one in every six people in America face hunger every day.
The startling reality here in Blaine County is that we mirror those statistics. More than 3,000 people in our community are finding themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to choose between paying bills or buying food. Keeping a roof over their families’ heads often takes precedence over having food on the table.
So many misconceptions surround the concept of hunger, especially in our resort community with its natural and manmade beauty. I have worked with The Hunger Coalition for more than five years now and have seen the increase in need. So much so, the organization has quickly expanded to meet the growing demand. I have also witnessed the change in our food lines. More and more, we are seeing previously job-secure homeowners with children in school walk through our doors. They have faced unexpected hardships over the last few years and are overwhelmed by embarrassment to be in a position of needing help. They don’t realize that some of their neighbors are in the same lines.
This lingering economic crisis has meant that more children, more than 40 percent of those enrolled in the Blaine County School District, are participating in free and reduced-cost meal programs through the district. That increase is surprising given that enrollment numbers in Blaine County schools have remained static. These are our neighbors and they have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us. They live here because they want to make a better life for themselves and their children.
A common misconception is that poverty and hunger go hand in hand. In reality, though they’re related, unemployment is a stronger factor in why families find themselves in a position to have to skip meals or to have no idea when they will eat next. We have all watched as unemployment, especially in the construction and service industries, has changed the face of our community. With winter upon us, The Hunger Coalition is preparing for the “hunger season,” those months when employment opportunities diminish, utility bills rise, desperation sets in for so many and our shelves become bare due to the onslaught of need.
This holiday season, I am reminded of the goodwill and love-thy-neighbor attitude that is the spirit of our holiday traditions. We have a truly generous community. I have witnessed that as well. I urge you to consider your neighbor this season and help give hope to those in need: Donate your child’s outgrown coat, contribute to a food drive, drop that spare change into the red bucket, deliver a meal to an elderly person who can’t leave the house. As Scott Simon said so poignantly, “Part of what makes an act of giving truly kind is that we recognize ourselves in those who need help, and know, but for a few zigs, zags and accidents, that could be us.”
Jeanne Liston is the executive director of The Hunger Coalition, a Bellevue-based nonprofit group that provides food aid to people in need.