In 2005, in Silver City, N.M., I started a program for schoolchildren who were going hungry over the weekend. The idea was to send them home each Friday with a backpack full of easy-to-open-and-eat snacks — raisins, fruit juice, peanut butter and crackers. One of the biggest obstacles to ending hunger in America is denial that the problem exists. I didn't know it then, but I was in denial, too: I thought my program would turn out to be a fairly small project.
I knew the statistics. One in four children and one in six seniors in New Mexico are "food insecure," meaning they don't always know when they will eat their next meal. But statistics are like rain on a rain slicker. They slide off; they don't penetrate. I have lived in or near Silver City for almost 30 years. For a relatively poor rural town, population 10,545, we look pretty good with our small university, vibrant arts community, outdoor recreation and great restaurants. Surely there couldn't be real hunger here?
I raised enough money to help 15 children throughout the school year. Almost immediately, I needed to raise 10 times that amount. Then I added 50 children. Expanded into another school district. Added another 100 children. And what would happen come summer? How would we feed the kids then?
We called the program Alimento para el Niño, Nourishment for the Child, and its success was bittersweet. Checks streamed in from bank presidents and from the poor themselves; one elderly woman faithfully sent in $5 a month. People dropped off food; people packed food. They loved this program. And the children loved it, too. In the school counselor's office, every Friday became a party, the children with their backpacks open. Butterscotch pudding! Beef jerky! By necessity, the food was over-packaged and over-processed. The program wasn't perfect. But the payoff was immediate. Adults are supposed to feed children. Children are supposed to be fed.
Today, four years later, I am on the board of The Volunteer Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending hunger in my county. We have taken over and expanded the school backpack program, organized three community gardens and started a food pantry in partnership with our local food co-op. Moreover, we have a federal grant to purchase land and buildings for a Food Security Center with a small-scale permaculture system of farming, commercial kitchen, and retail store. Here, we imagine, the single mother on welfare who falls in love with growing tomatoes can start making and selling her great-grandmother's famous salsa. We'll grow our own community activists by providing jobs for local people, who will teach others how to cook, can and market their homegrown vegetables. As people work in the soil and sun, they will learn to value these natural resources. At the same time, we'll be tackling an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, encouraging everyone to get outside and exercise.
This vision is synergistic, each part enhancing the other. It's not just about hunger; it's about community and empowerment. A sustainable future. Our relationship to food. It nicely combines the different parts of my life, from the idealism I inherited as a teenager in the '60s to today's local-is-better philosophy.
So why am I nostalgic for the days when I simply put a fruit roll-up into a child's eager hand? I've gone from the tangible thrill of buying juice for kids to serious fund-raising and the promotion of Big Ideas like Sustainability and Bioregionalism. I worry that these Big Ideas are being imposed on poor families who have less interest in growing tomatoes than in the comforts of a middle-class lifestyle, who struggle daily with the legacy of substance abuse and broken homes. Am I really holding out homegrown squash as an answer to meth addiction? Or to the humiliating process of getting food stamps? Or to a minimum wage policy that leaves people choosing between food and rent?
I've caught myself feeling oddly jaded, even about the things I believe in. A secret Grinch, I sit at board meetings thinking, "Community gardens? Boy, that's a lot of work!"
It is a lot of work. And I'm not a professional activist; I'm more like someone who accidentally wandered into a disaster area and was handed the nearest shovel. I know that ending hunger requires more than giving out snacks. And I know that the answers are multiple: a food pantry for the immediate need, an overhaul of the food stamp program for the mid-term, and a vision of food empowerment for the future.
Really, I'm just afraid of failing. But visions, by definition, involve the risk of failure. So I will stop wringing my hands and imagine a better future: children running through the rows of the Food Security Center 's garden, munching on carrots, breathing in the smell of sweet basil. Someone is baking bread in the commercial kitchen. There are the sounds of laughter, conversations in Spanish. It's not perfect. It may even fail. But in the end, not trying would be so much worse.
Sharman Apt Russell's books include Hunger: An Unnatural History; for more information, go to www.sharmanaptrussell.com.