One of the many benefits which I love about my new job is that we get paid for time spent volunteering. The last couple of opportunities which have come up were helping with a Habitat for Humanity build. My coworker Mary has been more than happy to volunteer for these events. Since only one of the two of us can volunteer at a time, that meant I could not, which is totally fine by me. Having owned a home for 8 years, I am fully aware that DIY is not a skill in which I excel. I can hold my own around my own house mind you, but I would hate to think that someone else would have to live in a house that I helped to assemble. I am equally aware that the agitation brought on by DIY projects organized by other people turns me into the kind of TrollWoman that I really don’t want my coworkers to know I am on the inside. Also I tend to curse a lot more when doing construction and I prefer not to go there around my coworkers and/or boss.
Earlier this month an opportunity came up which actually appealed to me – volunteering at the Great Plains Food Bank. Having grown up in a relatively un-rich area of Bismarck, with friends even less rich than myself, and relatives even less rich than them (even now), I know the impact hunger has on families, especially the children. The volunteer project involved filling backpacks with food for children to bring home on the weekends. Some children, yes even in Fargo-Moorhead, simply do not have enough food to eat at home; some kids only eat when they are at school. This is a project I could get behind. My heart aches at the thought of a child suffering through the weekend without enough food to eat while my kids and I sit at home complaining that the food we have isn’t what we wanted or just doesn’t sound good.
Before beginning our volunteer work, we were taken a tour of the warehouse and the coordinator told us some statistics about the food bank and how many people had been helped by its programs. I don’t really know what I expected to see when I got to the food bank, but I was blown away by the sheer size of the place. It doesn’t look nearly that expansive from the outside. The majority of their product is non-perishable food items and household necessities like toilet paper, laundry detergent, diapers, etc. They did also have a freezer and refrigerator with basic perishables but obviously these products are more difficult to manage and to distribute and are therefore available in smaller quantities.
I took some notes while our tour guide was talking, but please don’t quote me – I don’t have any official references so I can’t vouch for the exactness of these numbers. Approximately 7.4 million pounds of food were distributed by the Great Plains Food Bank last year to the surrounding area, which includes the entire state of ND and parts of MN. Though the organization does service part of Minnesota, it is actually a North Dakota organization and (if I remember correctly) does not receive any funding from the state of Minnesota. The organization receives very little federal assistance; what it does get is in the form of surplus food products. Due to legislative budget cuts, much of this supply line will be significantly reduced next year (by 50% or more) meaning the Food Bank will need to raise even more money or receive more donations in order to make up for the loss.
Around 66,000 families in ND (about 22 thousand families in Fargo-Moorhead alone) were served by the Great Plains Food Bank. They estimate that approximately 1 in 12 people in ND suffer from hunger – that’s almost ten percent of the people in the state! As sad as this number makes me, it’s actually better than the national average, which is closer to 1 in 6. Just think about that for a minute. My daughter’s 5th-grade class last year had 20 kids in it. If an elementary school class has 18 kids in it, three of those kids suffer from hunger. This is hardly a problem that will go away if you ignore it.
The weekend backpack program (I’m sure it had a better name than that, but I didn’t write it down and can’t remember anymore) is in its third year now. Currently 14 schools participate in the program. I noticed that Carl Ben & Ben Franklin middle schools were not on list, which surprised me because having lived in both of these areas I know that there must be quite a few children who would benefit from this program. I later asked the coordinator how the schools were determined. She said the schools were recommended by the superintendents in the area, based on gathered statistics, and the likelihood of family participation. Carl Ben and Ben Franklin are not participating yet but the food bank is hoping to add them in the next year. One thing she mentioned as an obstacle is that sometimes families or children are afraid to be ridiculed if people find out they are participating in this program. I have been there, and I truly do understand how uncomfortable and embarrassing it is to have to ask for help. But I don’t understand why someone would rather suffer in silence than risk someone finding out they need assistance. We have never been quite far enough below the income level to qualify for food assistance, but there was a time when our children used the state medical insurance program. Yes I was embarrassed to admit I could not provide for my family, but I did it because it was what was necessary to keep my children healthy. Accepting that help *was* providing for my family, the best way I could at the time. One winter not too long ago, we received an unexpected grocery store gift certificate in the mail, with a very large balance. The timing could not have been more perfect; it came at a time when our cupboards were bare, we were behind on almost all of our bills, and payday was still a week away – that very day I had been going through the house looking for loose change so I could go buy ramen noodles or something. Instead we were able to fill a cart with “real” food; I made sure to buy a few small luxuries as well, so the kids could really appreciate the kindness of the gift. The card came with no name on it and was sent directly from the grocery store so I couldn’t even match the handwriting. I was never able to properly thank the person who sent it, but I was extremely grateful for the gift. I cried when I saw what was in the envelope.
While I was walking through the warehouse, packing boxes with cans of beans, and saran-wrapping pallets of food for the backpack program, I thought of my own children and their friends. There were moments while working that I literally had to fight back tears as I imagined the hungry children in our area whose schools do not currently participate in the backpack program. I clench my jaw in frustration whenever I hear someone say that people on food assistance are simply lazy freeloaders who just need to get a job already. Maybe some of them are, but frankly I don’t care. I don’t believe even one child should starve when we as a community have the means to help put food on his/her table, regardless of whether or not the parents are able to do so themselves.