Even after working in hunger relief for nearly 10 years, I still need reminders of the true face of the people we serve, and a recent trip to the Atlanta Community Food Bank provided just that.
I began the day at a Mobile School Pantry, where one interaction provided a stark reminder that people facing hunger often defy stereotypes about food insecurity in communities across the United States. An intern for the food bank approached a group of volunteers with a “priority request:” we should serve the young woman sitting on a bench with her children as soon as we were ready to distribute. Since I had already volunteered to gather information from those in attendance, I took the opportunity to assist the woman and her children. I quickly learned the reason for her urgency; she was a summer school teacher and needed to receive the food for her family in time to get to work.
I’m not sure why this situation took me by surprise, especially since I have actually used this example for many years. When audiences across the country ask about the face of hunger in America, I ask them to imagine a single mom of three who teaches children on a daily basis. She works hard to educate the next generation of leaders and professionals, but in most locales, her salary does not allow her to provide for her own children without the assistance of food banks and government programs. Telling a hypothetical story is easy enough, but seeing the story come to life had a startling effect on my own understanding of hunger in America.
I could not help but think of my wife growing up the daughter of a kindergarten teacher. She was lucky to live in a dual income household where the prospect of going to school hungry never surfaced. However, she was just one layoff or tragedy away from being in the very same situation as the family in Atlanta. She could have easily become another child sitting on a bench at a mobile pantry. And my mother-in-law could’ve easily become the woman who frantically strives to provide for her own kids while equipping the children in her community with one of the building blocks of a successful life.
But, along with this reality check came a refreshing confidence in our nationwide network of food banks: their compassion and commitment to providing hope to the people we serve. Teachers often spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on school supplies for their classroom. As I imagined this burden on the young woman at the pantry, I struggled for a solution, but Atlanta Community Food Bank had one. In addition to the mobile school pantries that operate year-round, the food bank also provides a school supplies store for teachers at no charge. Paper, pencils, crayons – anything you can think of for a classroom – are available for teachers at high-need schools.
Feeding America member food banks continue to amaze me with their innovative solutions to the problems facing our communities. My trip to the Atlanta Community Food Bank struck my heart with the realities of hunger in America, while at the same time renewing my faith in our network’s ability to help provide a food secure future for the people we serve.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank was a recipient of the ConAgra Foods Foundation Hunger Free Summer grant which enables food banks to find innovative solutions to feed more children during the summer months.
*Jordan Vernoy is the vice president of national programs at Feeding America.