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Steven V. Roberts column: The best gift of all

L

ooking for a last-minute gift idea? Here’s one: Donate to your local food bank, and send the folks on your annual card list a note, telling them you’ve made a contribution in their name.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a second plague sweeping America — hunger — and there’s no vaccine for this one. But each of us can help.

As parents have lost time at work and children have lost time at school — where they could receive free or subsidized meals — food insecurity has skyrocketed. A survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, found that “almost 26 million adults said their households either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the prior seven days,” reports CNBC. That amounts to 12% of all adults, up from just 3.7% who suffered from hunger last year. Among households with children, 16% report facing food shortages.

Stimulus bills passed last spring helped alleviate hunger in a variety of ways, and there’s still hope that Congress will adopt a new measure containing food aid before adjourning for the holidays. But the pressing need for help on the local level will still be acute, no matter what lawmakers do.

“We’re kind of bracing ourselves for an awful January and increased demand,” Michael Flood, president of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, told CNBC.

“No crisis has ever strained our ability to serve those in need as much as coronavirus,” said Derrick Chubbs, president of the Central Texas Food Bank, to The Washington Post.

The promise of widespread vaccinations means that “far off in the distance, there is sunlight,” said economist Ernie Tedeschi of the accounting firm Evercore ISI in the Post. But in the short run, “we’re going to have a few of the toughest months of this pandemic, and there will be a lot of scars left to heal.”

There is, of course, the burning moral question: How can the richest nation in the world permit so many of its citizens to suffer these hardships? But widespread hunger also has a devastating practical impact that diminishes us all. Children who lack food are less likely to learn well, stay in school, acquire credentials, find good jobs, support themselves and pay taxes.

A major report from the Brookings Institution puts it this way: “There are immediate and long-term health consequences to inadequate nutrition and limited access to food. Children born into food-insecure households risk birth defects, and children living in food-insecure households tend to have a lower health-related quality of life, higher rates of asthma, less nutritious diets, anemia, and cognitive and behavioral problems that affect well-being and school performance.”

The report continued: “In the first five years of life — the foundational years for brain and physical development — food insecurity directly and indirectly impedes healthy development.”

Hunger tends to be compounded by other deprivations, as Lisa Davis of the No Kid Hungry campaign told ABC: “The same children that are experiencing food insecurity, in most cases, are the same kids that face challenges and inequities in accessing online learning. And if we don’t take action, we’re risking losing a generation of low-income children.”

Some federal efforts are running out of money, placing greater strains on local feeding programs. Lawdia Kennedy told the Post that the food drive she runs in suburban Atlanta depends heavily on one government initiative, the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which is now out of funds.

“The needs are beyond what we can comprehend,” said Kennedy. “We had three truckloads scheduled for Saturday, and they just vanished. Six states are right now being told there will be no food, right before Christmas. It’s hard to put into words what this means for the families I serve.”

Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger network, reports a 60% increase in traffic since the onset of the pandemic, says the Associated Press. Four in 10 clients are first-time users like Donna Duerr, who has disabilities caused by recent surgeries and whose husband lost his job a pipefitter.

“This is a hard thing, to accept that you have to do this,” she said at a food bank in New Orleans. “I either pay bills or get food.”

There are countless Donnas out there. They need our help. And you don’t have to worry about what size they wear.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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