Facing Hunger in the South
By Jonathan Watts Hull, SLC Senior Policy Analyst
The line begins to form outside the basement offices of the Emergency Assistance Ministry in Decatur, Ga., at 8 a.m., even though the doors don’t open until 9 o’clock.
By the time the first client is welcomed inside, there are too many people to all sit inside the tiny waiting area. Some come seeking financial assistance to pay utilities or rent, some are in need of clothing or medicine, but almost all are there to pick up free food from the pantry. The small storeroom in the back is lined with shelves of commodities and fresh produce donated by 20 area churches and from the Atlanta Community Food Bank. By the end of the day, the shelves are nearly bare, and some of those seeking assistance have been sent elsewhere.
This scene is not unlike others that play out at food pantries large and small across the country. The Great Recession pushed millions of American households to the brink, straining them financially and sending them to the doors of community food pantries in order to complete their diet.
According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger and relief charity, the number of people served by its network of pantries, kitchens and shelters rose 46 percent between 2005 and 2009. The nonprofit reports that in 2009, 14.7 percent of households, representing more than 50 million Americans, were food insecure. That means they did not always have access to enough food to meet basic needs. Each week, about one in 50 Americans visits a food pantry to get emergency food aid.
Food insecurity strikes families across the country, but it is particularly acute in the South, where the five states with significantly higher rates of household food insecurity than the national average—Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina—are located. Food insecurity also is concentrated in rural areas, where food costs often are higher, food pantries fewer and the problem is less visible.
The impact hunger and food insecurity can have on communities is profound, from lost productivity in the workplace, diminished academic performance for children, and decreased health outcomes overall.
As the incidence of food insecurity has increased, public and private sector leaders have renewed efforts to eliminate hunger in the United States through a host of activities aimed at closing food gaps and shoring up family food options. The new model for addressing food insecurity brings together the business community, elected officials, government agencies and community organizations to solve local problems through local solutions, while maintaining a focus on the broader state, regional and national implications of the problem.
This emerging approach to food security will be investigated in Memphis, Tenn., on Sunday, July 17, at the 65th Annual Meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference, the Southern office of The Council of State Governments. A panel discussion, Facing Hunger in the South, will provide an overview of the food security situation in the region and discuss collaboration among public and private entities to address hunger.
The panel, moderated by Estella Mayhue-Greer, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank, will feature Emily Engelhard, director of social policy research and analysis at Feeding America, Nicole Robinson, director of community involvement at Kraft Foods, and J.J. Zmudzinski, facilty manager at Cargill, as well as a representative from Walmart.
Later that afternoon, meeting attendees will Take Action Against Hunger, packaging 20,000 meals for distribution to families in need in the Midsouth region during a 90-minute challenge.