“Beyond the Food Drive”

“This year, an average of 1.5 million New York City residents, 1 in 4 of which are children, live in households facing food insecurity.”

The above was one of the many facts addressed at a conference hosted by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. The conference, which was held Saturday at Barnard College, focused on ending hunger through citizen action.

I was particularly struck by the title of the workbook handed out to the participants: “Beyond the Food Drive.” As I learned at the conference, canned food drives are actually one of the most ineffective and inefficient ways to fight hunger. According to the NYCCAH, the top three ways for volunteers to combat this epidemic are to contact elected officials, help connect eligible families to SNAP/Food Stamp benefits, and help increase participation in school breakfast programs. While food drives can be helpful, ultimately it is the public policy that needs to change.

Later in the day I attended a panel discussion on legislative and policy advocacy. One word kept jumping out at me: stigma. Hunger and food insecurity remain invisible scourges largely because of the stigma of public assistance. According to NYCCAH:

Out of families with children suffering from food insecurity and hunger, 68 percent contained at least one adult working full-time, 10 percent had at least one adult working part-time, seven percent had an unemployed adult actively looking for work, and eight percent were headed by an adult with a disability. The main problem is low wages and few jobs, not laziness.

We need to bring this crisis out of the shadows; we need to make it clear that there is no shame in needing help. Most importantly, we need make sure that our elected officials, the people who make public policy, know what hunger and food insecurity really looks like.

So how can you help?

1. Demand that the next mayor commit to mandating that schools in NYC participate in the National School Breakfast program. According to NYCCAH, “[b]ecause School Breakfast is reimbursed by the federal government, serving breakfast to low-income students not only reduces tardiness and helps them perform better in school, but also brings federal dollars directly into the school district.” So the next time you attend a mayoral forum, or receive a phone call from a candidate asking for a donation, ask them if they plan to mandate school breakfasts and how else they plan to address child hunger in the city.

2. Start or Join a Food Action Board. Action Board members meet at least once every 2 weeks in their neighborhood to (1) train and (2) take action. Members work to get letters signed, make phone calls, talk to the media, engage and educate their peers, give public testimony, and meet with their elected officials. For more information on how to join your local board, or start your own, click HERE.

3. Volunteer your skills. “Although NYCCAH values all types of volunteerism, the Coalition is looking to redefine volunteerism and how people serve. The truth is that relatively few pantries and kitchens need more untrained volunteers to perform manual food service tasks. What these agencies really need are dedicated long-term volunteers or professional and technical volunteers (e.g. experts in web design, grant writing, or accounting).” NYCCHA has a volunteer matching system on their website which can help connect you to an organization that could use your help: http://www.nyccah.org/hunger-volunteer.html

The fight against hunger is one we can win, if we are committed and hold our elected officials accountable. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger is doing amazing work, but they can’t do it alone. To learn more, check out the official NYCCAH handbook and volunteer to help end hunger in New York City by 2018.