On a humid Friday morning, as the city of Chicago starts to bustle with summer activity, the Feeding America national office is unusually quiet. Empty meeting rooms and quiet hallways are actually the byproduct of some office-wide hooky, but the plotting of Ferris Bueller (or like-minded employees) can’t be blamed. Instead, it’s the annual Day of Impact, when office staff take the opportunity to volunteer in the community and interact with the people we serve. To reconnect with the face of hunger. So we venture out to food pantries and mobile sites across the city, don gloves, bag produce, carry grocery bags and break down pallets.
On the morning of the event, we navigate to a neighborhood in southwest Chicago, we approach our volunteer site: a mobile produce pantry functioning like a pop-up farmer’s market. As we pull up to the curb, a sobering visual places the urgency of hunger relief front and center. Hundreds of people line the street, having traveled by public transportation, in family vans or on foot to wait in the stifling heat. In under two hours, we will distribute tens of thousands of pounds in squash, celery, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce, strawberries and bread.
The faces that trickle past me, accepting bags of produce with a kind word and a smile, represent all ages and walks of life. In the United States, the face of hunger transcends cultural, generational and ethnic boundaries. Hunger is pervasive, and that simple fact is laid bare during our volunteer morning. Even in this predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, food insecurity crosses language barriers and impacts more than one identity or interest group. It affects the father balancing professional and personal commitments. The college student weighed down by debt. The young mom weighed down – quite literally – by the toddler at her side and the baby on her chest. The long-time best friends whose bags grow too heavy to carry. The family matriarch who waits an extra hour in the sun, just to take surplus strawberries back to her growing grandchildren at home.
By 2 p.m., we have returned to our desks, no worse for the wear. But for the 48 million Americans who struggle with hunger, a visit to the local pantry is not a welcome reprieve from emails and excel spreadsheets. It’s a necessary detour.
And so, on that Friday morning in a southwest neighborhood of Chicago, a grandmother facing hunger can laugh and tell me about her three-year-old grandson’s obsession with the morning news, instead of making tough choices between meals and medical costs. And when we head into the nearby elementary school for clean-up, the spirited sounds of a kids’ program greet us. Children should hunger for a lot during the summer: pool time, lazy afternoons, fireworks…. But they should never have to go without the basic, nutritional building blocks to play, learn and grow.
Molly Norberg is currently a communication intern with Feeding America after receiving her BA in Journalism and a BS in International Studies from the University of Kansas.