Food insecurity closer to home than most would expect

Hunger. A word most would associate with desolate third world countries. Few would think of the US as a country where many go hungry every day. However, a federal report in 2011 by the Department of Agriculture showed that in 2010, 48.8 million people lived in food-insecure households where at some point during the year they were unable to get enough food to eat. The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said in a recent press release, “These numbers are a wake-up call for us to get very serious about food security and hunger, about nutrition and food safety in this country.”

In Alaska alone, 77,200 individuals are considered food-insecure.  The largest contributing factor for this in recent years is escalating unemployment or poor paying jobs. This is where the national food bank association comes in. Every state has a food bank which collects and distributes food to those that are food-insecure. Alaska is no exception and has its very own Food Bank of Alaska.

The Food Bank of Alaska, established over 30 years ago, is a non-profit organization that collects food donations and distributes the food to Alaskans in need. They are distributed through food pantries, food kitchens, and shelters run by volunteers. However all of the donations they receive only make up five percent of the demand for food.

An avid donator, Tanya Stevens knows the pressure to get food each year for the food bank, “I try to donate every year and go around my neighborhood to collect donations. Though I know that even if I collect, say a barrel full of food that it will only be enough to feed maybe .005 percent of hungry Alaskans it is still worth the effort.”

To help combat this the FBA is the distribution of food stamps, which allows needy families to buy essential goods for a cost effective price that fits their budgets rather than relying completely on free food.

“Over 77,000 different people in Alaska will look for food assistance at some time over the course of a year. Out of that number only 56,000 Alaskans participate in the Food Stamp Program,” said Robin Stillwell, Director Department of Advocacy & Agency Relations, Food Bank of Alaska.

Some places, like the Wade Hampton census area of Western Alaska relies completely on the assistance of food stamps.

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Unsurprisingly, College students also make up a big chunk of that number.

“Being in debt and being in college accumulating more debt and then having to pay monthly bills on top of that and still feed yourself. It almost seems impossible sometimes,” said student Sherri Davis a UAA student who also lives on food stamps.

Besides debt, students are also the most likely to have problems making ends meet due to low paying jobs and the high cost of courses each semester. Many students qualify for food stamps, but do not take advantage of the program for various reasons, the biggest one being the embarrassment of being on the program.

The programs are not just limited to Alaska-based to impact Alaskans. A new game called Spent has recently gained attention as a simulation that shows what it is like to live on $8-$9/hour.  The game was created by McKinney and Urban Ministries of Durham, a real life agency with the goal of providing food, clothing, shelter and supportive services to our neighbors in need. It challenges a person to survive a month on minimum wage and face day to day challenges which quickly diminishes a players’ money. While many people would find the game simple and even silly, the hard fact is that the examples in the game were taken from real life people who really do live on minimum wage.  While it is meant to be educating, people who actually are living in those types of situations don’t find it quite so stimulating.

“It almost sounds more of an insult since it’s making a game out of ‘Catch-22’ decisions that we really have to face and makes our lives look like shit to the general public rather than gain us sympathy,” said Davis.

Whether a method is agreeable to everyone or not, the fact remains that if it can educate others about issues many people are going through, then it can’t be too bad. All around there are people who may be on food stamps but no one knows it. It is a tough economy that we are living in, with no guarantees that it will get better before the next generation takes over. Right now the numbers for low income, food-insecure Americans, aren’t looking to good and they have been steadily growing. Without these programs, like the Food Bank of Alaska, in place, many Americans would be starving and without a home.