To say a lot of people are hungry in Kentucky may be an understatement and a bit of a surprise, but a recent report on hunger shows one of five people here, more than 20 percent, report not having enough money to buy food within the last 12 months.
The “Food Hardship in America 2012” report was released by the Food Research and Action Center. It notes the news isn’t much better nationally, with just over 18 percent of Americans suffering from food hardships.
“This report provides evidence of both the lingering effects of the recession and the existence of holes in the federal safety net,” said Kentucky Association of Food Banks Executive Director Tamara Sandberg. “Food banks can attest to the continued need for emergency food assistance among our struggling neighbors. The shockingly high rate of households in Kentucky that struggle to put food on the table should spur all of us to join the fight to end hunger.”
Sandberg also said the issue isn’t always a supply problem as much as a money problem for people in the state who need more food.
“If you come to a food pantry and stand and watch the people who are standing in line, they will come in wearing their uniforms from work; they have jobs but they are just not earning enough to feed their families,” she said. “Or they have jobs and they also have catastrophic medical bills. They are having to choose between paying their bills or paying for food.”
This need has put an incredible strain on food banks. Sandberg said 84 percent more people were looking to food banks for food in 2010 than six years before.
“We’re currently gathering data to update that, and I’m guessing it’s going to be much worse because as the effects of the recession continue to impact so many families in Kentucky,” she said. “Food banks are already straining to meet the demands for emergency food assistance as it is let alone with the proposed cuts to the food stamp program. We are very concerned about that because if it is cut, it will just send more people to the food banks. I don’t know how we are going to meet the need if more people come because their food stamp benefits have been cut.”
Of course the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was one of the sticking points faced in last year’s Farm Bill failure. The House version called for bigger cuts than what the Senate had proposed. The USDA notes that the SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net and it also benefits local communities I an economic sense.
The USDA also reports that nationally, 3,214 farmers markets and farmers who sold directly to consumers authorized to redeem SNAP benefits in FY 2012.
But as the need as gone up at local food banks, the supply has decreased for many due in part to the amount food coming from the Emergency Food Assistance Program. For some food banks, half of their food comes from that program.
Sandberg said another source for food banks has been from manufacturers that typically send food banks any mismarked or dented cans or boxes. But as these companies’ processing abilities improve, there has been less food to send food bank networks.
In Kentucky, food banks have proven to be a valuable market for farmers. There in fact has been legislation passed that would create a market for a farmer’s “seconds” that don’t make it to the store front or farmers’ market but could be used to feed the hungry. The Farm to Food Banks bill however has never been funded by the General Assembly.
Sandberg said the food bank program could certainly help farmers looking to diversify and who are needing a market for their goods.
“Knowing that we will take all of their No. two frees them up to focus on marketing their more profitable number ones and it allows them to sell their entire crop as opposed to selling just the firsts,” she said. “The farmers we have worked with absolutely tell us we’re helping their bottom line and we’re increasing their cash flow.”
Kentucky Agricultural Development Funds have been used but the money ran out long before all the needs were met. And there have been other monetary donations made to the KAFB. Sandberg said the organization was able to work with 200 farmers last year and if the existing legislation were funded, even more could be added.
But funding is hard to come by even when the need is great. Kentucky ranks 19th in states for food hardships last year according to information from the Food Hardship in America 2012 report. Other states in the top 20 included Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia and Michigan to name a few.
Sandberg said the hunger issue is about so much more than just getting enough food to those who need it.
“It’s in the best interest of policymakers and business leaders to ensure that no one goes hungry in Kentucky. Hunger is a workforce development issue, because hungry kids can’t learn as well as their counterparts with full bellies and hungry workers aren’t as productive as their colleagues who never worry about putting food on the table,” she said.
The full Food Hardship In America 2012 report is available online at frac.org.
TIM THORNBERRY is a contributing writer at KyForward.com.