Feeding the hungry: A daily challenge that shapes our future

Feeding the hungry: A daily challenge that shapes our future

Last week, the U.S. Census released its latest demographic and economic data for local communities; unfortunately, it includes another grim set of poverty statistics for Indianapolis.  While many of us are planning holiday get-togethers and gift exchanges, a growing number of our neighbors are living paycheck to paycheck – or even meal to meal.

More than one of every five residents of Marion County live below the federal poverty line, including one of every three children.  The local poverty rate outpaces the nation by more than a third, and is 20% higher than the rest of ‘urban America.’

Sadly, the new numbers aren’t surprising – they’re part of a dismal 21st century trend.  The Anne E. Casey Foundation and Brookings Institution rank Indy’s poverty rate among the fastest-growing of the nation’s large cities – Brookings notes that poverty across the metro area has skyrocketed 80% since 2000.

When poverty rises, hunger follows.  ‘Food insecurity’ (limited or unreliable access to adequate food) tracks closely with poverty; it’s estimated that more than 180,000 residents of Indianapolis – and a quarter-million Hoosiers across the region – are food insecure.  Nearly one of every four local children routinely go hungry.

As the region’s largest food bank, Gleaners sees Indy’s hunger epidemic first-hand.  It takes nearly $25,000 a day to support our Community Cupboard, mobile pantries and other programs, while distributing food and providing other support to hundreds of local pantries and other partners across Central Indiana.

Feeding the hungry is a moral cause that inspires our network of donors and volunteers to contribute generously; but as demand grows, so does our mission…and we have to ask even more.

There’s an obvious appeal to give to Gleaners because it’s the right thing to do.  But after coming to lead this 35-year civic institution from a career in the private sector, I want to add another perspective – meeting the challenge of hunger isn’t just an act of compassion, but an investment in upward mobility.

Civic leaders and elected officials are trying to break the cycle of poverty with education, and making progress:  In IPS, graduation rates and reading scores are up, while magnet and charter schools provide more options for parents.  In the General Assembly, there’s bipartisan momentum behind making early learning programs more accessible to low-income households.

But these opportunities are sabotaged by an empty stomach.  Numerous studies show that persistent food insecurity leads to lagging math and reading scores among K-12 students, lower high school graduation rates, more reports of behavioral issues.

The research confirms the obvious: A hungry child isn’t ready to learn – educational achievement and hunger relief must go hand-in-hand.  That’s why Gleaners not only works directly with families, but also focuses on children through programs like Back Sacks (weekend food for kids in need), school-based food pantries, and the ‘Summer Meals’ initiative.  Good nutrition and adequate food are basic steps towards helping children succeed – and making our other investments in education pay off.

But we can’t focus on future generations without addressing today’s workers and parents.

Elected officials from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have remarked that “the best anti-poverty program is a job.”  But today, a job isn’t a sure path to the middle class – with unemployment low and poverty high, the ranks of the working poor are growing.  At the same time, many Indy-area employers struggle to find qualified applicants for good-paying jobs in manufacturing, healthcare, construction and more.

Again, education can help; the challenge is getting low-income adults into vocational education programs that prepare them for better jobs.  It’s too much to ask a single parent to concentrate in a college classroom when they’re hungry, or knowing that hungry kids wait at home.  Many face a choice between going back to school one or two nights a week or working an extra shift or overtime to (literally) put food on the table.

Estimates range from a quarter to nearly half of all college students experiencing periods of food insecurity – non-traditional students and adult learners drive these averages.  The consequences of hunger – stress, chronic disease and other long-term physical and emotional problems – are additional hurdles to going ‘above and beyond’ the daily routine to earn new skills and pursue higher-paying careers.

Food assistance – including non-profits like Gleaners and government programs like SNAP – is a vital part of a supportive safety net for working families trying to build a brighter future.  Any successful blueprint for boosting educational attainment and earning power – today and for the future – has to tackle the fundamental issue of hunger before expecting to change the long-term trajectory of poverty in Indianapolis.

It’s the season for giving, but also for thinking about the future, planning for the New Year and beyond.  Supporting Gleaners brings the immediate satisfaction of making a difference to local families – and also takes a basic step towards economic empowerment and self-sufficiency.