Reflections and Reminders about Hunger in Illinois
by Ty Cummings, Resident Staff at Benton House
Yesterday, June 21st 2014, thousands of people gathered at Soldier Field to walk Chicago's annual Hunger Walk, put on by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, churches, community groups, families and friends marched in the cool, gray Illinois morning, cheered on by passing cars and bystanders. There were marching bands, banners, cheerful babies pulled along in wagons (and at least one chihuahua in a doggy-stroller); and everyone here wanted the same thing: to raise money and awareness to address food insecurity and end the plague of hunger in Cook County.
Now that the Hunger Walk has passed, let's keep going, Illinois. There are opportunities everyday on different levels and fronts to contribute to the fight against hunger. Let's not forget why we walked.
1. Remember: People are hungry and we have the resources to feed them.
But we need to rewire some things. According to a 2010 study by Iowa State University, "270,025 cropland acres would be needed to produce the partial-year demands of 28 fresh fruits and vegetables in the six-state region [Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin]. That is roughly equivalent to the average amount of cropland in one of Iowa's 99 counties."
If one county in Iowa can produce enough to meet the demands of these varieties of fruits and veggies for SIX STATES, imagine what our abundance of farmland in Illinois could do. And, as you'll see below, prioritizing food security and prioritizing economic vitality are not always mutually exclusive.
2. Remember: There are systemic solutions, and you can help.
When it comes to talking about city and statewide anti-hunger initiatives, it is important to stay informed and remain hopeful: there are realistic solutions.
At this year's Hunger Summit (put on by the Illinois Commission to End Hunger) I learned about the brilliant work being done by non-profits across the state. There are programs that match food purchased at farmer's markets by E.B.T. holders, providing more nutritious food to those who need it most. There are institutions researching the immense benefits of diversifying crop production in Illinois and focusing on important fruits and veggies, how best to ensure fair compensation for farmers and greater develop the agricultural workforce, and the possibility of buying excess crops at bargain prices for Illinois food pantries. And there are great ideas, such as including farming education in public school service learning programs, that with the right team could transform our State's cultural awareness of food systems and hunger issues.
If you consider the big picture of food production and consumption, some of these solutions begin to paint a beautiful, mutually beneficial picture that provides food for the hungry, jobs for the poor, and industry for the state. If, for instance, we take Experimental Station's work in matching food purchased with food stamps at Illinois farmer's market's, and combine this program with Feeding Illinois's initiatives to diversify Illinois crops and explore bargain purchases of excess crops, we find a scenario where federal money goes from food stamp clients to Illinois farmers, providing those in need access to larger amounts of nutritious food along the way.
But allow me to reiterate: there are profound, realistic solutions to food insecurity available if we make the right moves. It so happened that I found myself in a bar full of politicians, public servants, and interest groups the night of the Hunger Summit, and stumbled upon some great advice. I was talking with a representative of a small farming district in southern Illinois about my doubts surrounding advocacy and reform. He told me something that has stuck with me since. To paraphrase, "Advocacy works to move along great ideas that get stuck in the bureaucracy. It reminds lawmakers that people care. But there should be something on the table, and that takes work."
So, let's remember to stay active in getting behind good ideas. There are plenty of anti-hunger advocacy groups right here in Chicago (and statewide). Get involved and stay informed about what's on the table and what the stakes are.
3. Remember: There are immediate remedies, and you can help.
To hand food to a hungry neighbor is the most direct, immediate remedy to the unfortunate state of food insecurity here in Chicago. And providing food to the hungry is a service that profoundly expands the possibilities of being for those struggling to feed themselves. In a series of interviews conducted at the Benton House food pantry, it was repeatedly acknowledged that hunger is not the only side effect of not having enough food. To be hungry is to be in a state of physical, mental, and social disorientation and deprivation . Our clients told us about having to choose between food and heat in the winter, the difficult state of not being able to concentrate because of lack of nutrients, and the loss of freedom that occurs when the option to eat healthily is off the table. In truth, giving a meal to someone who is hungry is doing more than filling their stomach - it allows them to become more free; to focus on their pursuits and become better equipped to deal with the thousands of other struggles 21st century Americans face. You give them a chance.
I encourage everyone reading this to carry a five dollar bill with them everyday this week. When you pass someone in need, buy them food. On the way to the store, ask them what it's like to be hungry.
Beyond giving food to the homeless (which I greatly encourage), there are plenty of ways to directly serve those who are hungry in your community.
- Volunteer at a food pantry or soup kitchen in your community. If you can't find one, start one.
- Donate food and/or funds to the organizations in your community working to fight hunger.
- Form a neighborhood group or block club. Meet regularly and talk about ways to come together and help your neighbors have access to food. Call local restaurants and ask them to donate their leftovers.
4. Remember: Every community struggles with hunger.
In urban and rural areas, cities and suburbs, safe neighborhood and dangerous neighborhoods, the struggle for food is real.
- One third of poor Americans live in the suburbs.
- As of 2012, 34%-48% of the population of Chicago's south suburbs are food insecure.
- Poverty rates are the highest in rural America.