“It’s a problem, but it’s not a problem here” – a commonly held, and commonly wrong line of thinking. In a dinner with a twist, Clark students were challenged to examine the issue of hunger from a fresh perspective. Rather than the buffet-style dining that happens so often in the school cafeteria, at this Tilton Hall event, one’s access to food was determined by a theoretical income. Upon entering, attendees were assigned to one of three groups. Representing twenty percent of the global population, were income earners of at least $7,756 per year. These half dozen or so Clarkies were given access to all dining options. In contrast, the lowest income group was given a decidedly meager plate of white rice. This income group represented fifty percent of the world population, or those who live on less that $1,995 per year – that’s $5.50 a day.
Yet this disparity in food access is not just a problem for poor countries. Following the dinner, the event’s hosts – ClarkU Hillel, ONE, and the Clark Sustainability Collaborative – invited Carla Szymanski of Rachel’s Table to highlight the struggles of hunger in the United States. One in six Americans live in houses denoted as food insecure. It is a statistic that Symanski fears will worsen if the 2017 President Trump-endorsed budget is accepted. Rachel’s Table and many other hunger related charities would likely have to scale back operations if federal funding to food assistance programs is cut.
Even when acknowledging hunger at the national level, it’s still all too easy to remove oneself from the matter. America is a pretty big place – is the national data really reflective of a state like Massachusetts? After all, it is the third wealthiest state in the country. The answer is yes, absolutely. Census data reveals that twelve percent of Massachusetts residents live below the poverty line and within Worcester county that figures remains at ten percent.
The federal poverty line in 2012 for a family of four was defined as having a household income of $23,050 per year. The percentage of residents receiving assistance from the Worcester County Food Bank was 12.3 percent. Thus, according to federal standards, at least 2.3 percent of Worcesterites are considered to have sufficient funds even if they sometimes struggle to put food on the table.
The discrepancy between those considered impoverished and those receiving food assistance was a clear source of frustration to Szymanski who noted the numerous examples of people in Worcester who failed to qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), but were still unable to afford proper food for their families. Another inconsistency highlighted during the discussion was the minimum wage. Even in Massachusetts, where the minimum wage is $11 per hour, a worker still does not earn enough to live above the already questionable poverty line.
Rachel’s Table was founded in 1989 by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, whose members noted a lack of baby formula and milk for children at food banks in the Greater Worcester area. Since then the organization’s work has only continued to expand. While in many ways Rachel’s Table functions like a traditional food bank (those in need come to the bank to pick up food), it also contributed to the Worcester Summer Meal Program, which provides free to lunch to children during the months when school is not in session.
Of course, being aware is only half the battle. We must also take lasting action to combat chronic hunger. In addition to contacting government officials to preserve food programs, Szymanski encourages people to donate in whatever way they can. Regardless of how you choose to donate, Szymanski recommends to try to maximize the donation’s impact. She says the best way to achieve this is by being consistent. Rather than donating large quantities of food once per year, it is far more effective to prove a smaller, recurring donation. While Rachel’s Table will certainly accept food product donations, it recommends you don’t buy food directly for donation purposes. Donating money directly to a charity allows it to leverage that money towards bulk purchases and lower costs, while recurring donations allow charities to better plan these purchases. Regarding volunteers, Szymanski notes there is often influx of them around the holiday season. As a result, there is often a surplus of volunteers in November and December, while there is deficit during all the other months. Hunger isn’t an issues that just comes and goes. If we want to eliminate it, we need to be vigilant and address it year round.