Here are some facts I wish I didn't know: One in five children in my state of Tennessee is at risk of hunger. One in three persons receiving assistance from our middle Tennessee food bank is under the age of 18. More than one in six Tennesseans receive food stamps, and the numbers of people needing assistance is growing. In fact, between mid-2007 and mid-2009, the number of people receiving food stamp assistance grew 66 percent.
But this is not just a Tennessee crisis. Nationally, one in four children are at risk of going to bed hungry. The number of Americans in need is at the highest number in 51 years of recordkeeping. The weight of the recession, disasters like floods and tornadoes, harsh winters, rising food and fuel costs, a jobless recovery, escalating medical costs and a lack of affordable housing has taken its toll on a large portion of Americans who look a lot like you and me.
To understand this problem better, I recently spent some time with Jaynee Day, the president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. She gave me some important insights into these families in need.
Many of us assume that the hungry are homeless, but that is not the case. The homeless represent less than 19 percent of those in need. Those experiencing food insecurity are mostly seniors, children and working families. Some 60 percent of those helped have jobs. But because of underemployment and low paying jobs, these "working poor" families may be struggling with more than one minimum wage job and still not making ends meet. One third of those served in food banks every month must make a decision between buying food and paying utilities.
In many metropolitan areas, like Nashville, a majority of the children are participants in some type of reduced or free lunch program. Currently, in our metropolitan school district, 73 percent of the children are part of such a program. But even free lunch programs are not enough for some families. Teachers often notice children coming to school on Monday mornings hungry, and as a result, they are not performing to their maximum ability. Children need adequate and consistent nutrition to achieve in school.
To alleviate this need, a backpack program was originally developed in Arkansas, after a school nurse asked for help because hungry students were coming to her with stomach aches and dizziness. The local food bank began to provide the school children with groceries in nondescript backpacks to carry home.
Today, food banks like Second Harvest partner with faith communities and civic groups to assist in feeding these children. I was heartened to find out that United Methodist churches throughout the country are a large part of this program. What started as a pilot program in 1995 has spread to 3,600 programs serving some 190,000 children in 2009.
It's a small thing really. A typical backpack food bag includes two canned entrees, two fruit cups, two cereals, 100 percent fruit juice, shelf-stable milk and a snack. The bag of food is small enough to fit in a backpack, but large enough to make a difference in the future of a child.
As needs grow, Jaynee Day faces growing concerns. Cuts at the federal level will only put more pressure on agencies like Second Harvest to provide for children and families. Day told me that faith-based groups are key to food bank programs across the country. United Methodist churches are spreading the word about the need and providing funds, food supplies and volunteers.
Now when I read "Carry each other's burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ" in Galatians 6:2, I will be thinking about small backpacks filled with love for America's children.