When are you most aware of people in need? Is it during Thanksgiving, when you are giving thanks for what you have, and being reminded that others might not be so lucky? Is it around Christmas, when the spirit of giving is almost tangible? Not coincidentally, the holidays are when food pantries get the majority of their donations. But can you guess when food pantries need the most help? Now. That’s right. Summer is actually the busiest time for food pantries and soup kitchens alike because children are no longer receiving meals from their schools. But when is the thought of volunteering least likely to cross our minds? Now as well. We are busy barbecuing, going to the beach, and enjoying the summer sun. There is no major holiday to remind us that some people simply do not have enough food to eat. But there are ways we can help. I spoke with David M. O’Rourke, the chief operating Officer of the Hockanum Valley Food Pantry, located in my home state of Connecticut. What I learned, while uplifting, shows me that there is much to be done.
The Hockanum Valley Food Pantry, located in Vernon, Connecticut, is a program that not only offers food to families and individuals with low incomes, but also provides workshops and mental health counseling in conjunction with the Hockanum Valley Community Council. An incredible undertaking, the volunteers and staff of both organizations seek not only to feed underprivileged people, but also help treat underlying causes of poverty — addiction, abuse and mental illness — while attempting to change the definition of basic needs to encompass more than just having enough to eat. But relying mostly on private donations means that the pantry’s storage unit, where excess food is housed, is empty. In fact, this was the lowest O’Rourke had seen the pantry in 13 years. His weekly need has doubled since 2012.
The food pantry functions as a well-oiled machine. People may do their “shopping” either weekly or monthly. They must also meet the income requirements. For a single person, that equates to a salary of less than $27,000 annually or, for a family of four, less than $55,000 annually. While these requirements might seem generous, O’Rourke assures me that wages simply cannot keep up with the rising costs. Simply put, the food pantry eases the burden of day-to-day living for people struggling to make ends meet.
But that doesn’t mean the upkeep of the pantry is easy. It has been forced to cut the number of items it provides to each person, as well as its hours of operation. I asked O’Rourke what he needed most from his donors. He told me that as generic as it sounds, money is what they need the most. “I can turn your $2 into six cans of food because of programs like Food Share,” he said. “But your two cans of food will only ever be two cans of food.” This is all the more important with the increased number of children and youths O’Rourke sees during the summer months, seeking food when they no longer receive from their school’s food programs. Some of these children come in all alone. This, above all things, breaks my heart.
Recently, Pope Francis put out a call to end world hunger. At the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization Conference, he expressed his disfavor for those placing personal and financial gain above the most basic needs of others:
The human person and human dignity risk being turned into vague abstractions in the face of issues like the use of force, war, malnutrition, marginalization, violence, the violation of basic liberties and financial speculation. All these presently affect the price of food, treating it like just another kind of merchandise, overlooking its primary function.
The pope has seen the need for change in how we look at poverty and hunger. So how can we answer his call to help others?
Recently I came into contact with the organization Stop Hunger Now. Its meal packaging program is a mobile operation that allows volunteers to put together meals for hungry people all over the world. Having been a part of this process, I can attest to its efficiency and ease. Packing meals creates an astonishing amount of togetherness and pride in your group. And being able to give back in such a tremendous way makes those feelings even stronger.
Michael Sullivan, program manager of the New England branch, gave me some great insight into what makes Stop Hunger Now so exceptional. “What it brings to the table is a rewarding opportunity to have fun and actively save children’s lives. And given Stop Hunger Now’s transparency and integrity, we hope to partner with even more organizations,” Mr. Sullivan said. (They’ve already partnered with the Miss USA Pageant and Wine to Water.) Stop Hunger Now keeps 10% of their projected meals in reserve for crisis relief. Recently, they sent 285,000 meals to Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When I asked Mr. Sullivan why he loved working for Stop Hunger Now, it became apparent that this organization is just as rewarding for the people it employs as it is for the people it serves. “I save lives every day,” he said. “Life is short and it is important to use your life to make a difference. Stop Hunger Now gives me the opportunity to serve.”
Make a difference
So, let’s answer the call of Pope Francis and of hungry people everywhere. Because hunger isn’t seasonal and making the world a better place can start now. If Jesus could feed 5,000 in one day, just imagine what we could do once a month or more. Here are just a few ways to help:
- Volunteer at a local food pantry. Go to FoodPantries.org to find one close to you.
- Pick a day of the month to donate to the food pantry or hunger ministry at your parish or to a food pantry or soup kitchen in your local community. When that day rolls around, bring over a bag of nonperishables on your way to work or school.
- Make a donation online or mail a check to a program that feeds the hungry at the same time you pay your bills each month.
- Go to StopHungerNow.org and sign up to volunteer, host a meal packaging event, and learn more about hunger and your role in ending it.