Until Everyone Is Served

By Bill Bolling, Executive Director

I recently attended a family reunion. My family had scattered throughout the country early in my childhood, and some of us hadn’t seen each other in many years. An industrious cousin had the idea that we should all meet back home in North Carolina to get reacquainted. It was a little intimidating and exciting all at the same time to think about seeing my only two living aunts and so many cousins, some whom I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. What would we all look like? What would we talk about? Would we have anything in common after all these years apart?

Any anxious thoughts I’d had about the reunion melted away as we gathered together. It didn’t take long for us to begin telling stories about our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and a few cousins who have long since passed away. Interestingly enough, we met around the dining room table and the conversation inevitably turned to stories about food. We remembered how my grandmother, the matriarch of the family, used food as a way to bring us all together. Food was often the central focus on special occasions whether it was a birthday, anniversary or the passing of a family member.

As we shared memories, it was clear that even the everyday evening meal was special. One of my cousins recalled how my grandfather would secretly slip the kids a handful of peanuts before supper, and we all remembered the bag of homemade oatmeal cookies that always seemed to be on the highest shelf in the pantry, right out of our reach! Summertime meals almost always included two of my grandmother’s favorites – watermelon and cantaloupe. And she often drank iced coffee in the afternoons. That seemed so odd to us at the time.

Of course, when it came to proper clothing, shoes and clean hands, there was never any arguing. They were required before we showed up around the table.

Our reunion began with a conversation of food and it easily progressed from there. Food shared at the table of family and friends has been a central connecting point for people throughout recorded history. And while our favorite foods are often as diverse as our cultures, the centrality of how food nurtures and sustains us has always been a common denominator.

When we look at history, it’s important to note whether a society developed and sustained the capacity to feed its people. When entire civilizations periodically vanished from our midst, there was inevitably a problem with access to food and water. In more modern times, with the abundance of food in our own country, the political and organizational will to feed our people defines us and our times.

I spoke about this defining of a society in the last issue of Foodsharing, and I’m not ready to stop talking about it. At the time I wrote my last article, 27.9% of Georgia’s children were reported to be facing hunger according to the Feeding America Child Food Insecurity study. We recently received the new report, and the number has now risen to 28.3%. I’m wondering when things are going to turn around, and I’m posing the same question I posed in my last article. Would any of us be able to look at a hungry child standing in front of us and tell them they’ll have to go without food?

Yet, that is exactly what we will be doing if we pass a Farm Bill that severely cuts SNAP (food stamps) and other federal nutrition programs that provide such a critical and effective

safety-net, especially in light of the continued economic distress our country is experiencing. While the media seems most interested in broadcasting stories about fraud, the fact is that SNAP has a strong record of program integrity. According to a report by USDA, the program has an all-time high accuracy rating of 96.19%, and illegal trafficking only accounts for approximately 1% of the food stamp cases in our country. I encourage you to read more about the Farm Bill on page 9. And I urge you to contact your representatives. They need to hear from us on this matter.

If federal nutrition programs are slashed by billions of dollars – as is being proposed by Congress at press time – food banks and the rest of the nonprofit sector will not be able to fill in the gaps. The need isn’t going away. We’ve just come off the end of our fiscal year and our distribution has increased again. In our last fiscal year (July 1, 2011-June 30 2012), we distributed over 37.4 million pounds of food and groceries, a 3.7 million pound (11%) increase over the nearly 34 million pounds distributed in the prior fiscal year. We are stretched to the limit. Most of our partner agencies are telling us they cannot sustain the increased requests for food. Where will people turn?

ACFB is in the process of wrapping up a new branding campaign that will launch in the coming weeks. Soon to follow will be a new website. The theme that will run through our new messaging is this: “It starts with food.” Think about it. It really does start with food. Without food, our children cannot focus in school and we cannot be productive at work. Without food, our health fails. Food is essential to life.

Over the years, each of the programs at the Food Bank began out of a deep commitment that no one should go hungry. We believe that sharing food is the most natural and affirming way to help a family in need. With a shortage of affordable health care, housing, energy and cash to help those in need, food often becomes the entry way toward a deeper relationship and more sustainable future. Being involved in all aspects of food – from growing and harvesting it through our work in community gardening to gleaning it through partnerships with food growers, packers, distributors, marketers and retailers – the Food Bank can be present at many tables.

We are looking forward to the sharing of stories that will inevitably come from the dynamic and interactive nature of our new website. One of our goals is that it will be a place where people will see and hear of the wonderful ways neighbors help neighbors – a place to capture hope – hope represented in young people creating projects to help their elders; hope that is expressed in a warm meal or bag of food, and hope that is reflected in thousands of volunteers who help make things better for others every day.

Just as my family’s collective history is full of sustained effort, personal achievement, colorful characters, and sometimes challenging times, every family has similar stories. But unlike our family, who always had enough to eat, we have many families today who would have to come to their family reunions with stories of shame and embarrassment that there wasn’t enough food to go around. It doesn’t have to be that way.

It starts with food, but it won’t end until everyone is served and every family has enough food, support and dignity to look forward to their own family reunions with a sense of pride and abundance.

Bill Bolling