Growing up in a mostly middle-class suburb in New Jersey, hunger was not a subject that I really understood. I, like many children, had never had an experience being unable to get the food I needed; my parents provided everything for me. In elementary school I became vaguely aware that some of my peers got a free lunch. I jealously eyed their “beef-a-roni” and chicken nuggets while sullenly crunching carrots. With hindsight I now know that those kids were getting that free lunch because their families couldn’t always buy enough food. It begs the question; what does hunger really look like in a place where the average yearly income is pushing $100,000 (city-data.com)?
Certainly there is poverty in South Orange, my hometown. There are occasionally a few familiar faces of homeless people milling around the downtown. The town borders a relatively poor area of Newark, and sections of the town are visibly less wealthy than others. Poverty is a big factor contributing to hunger, and while food prices rise, incomes have stagnated for many. To find out about food security and hunger in my town, I started where hunger ends: the grocery store. In a town a little under 3 square miles (Google Maps) there are three large grocery stores, as well as many restaurants and corner stores. The grocery stores vary in food selection. A local grocery, Ashley Marketplace, sells organic produce at prices over twice the non-organic price, as well as specialty foods, such as a $50 per pound Italian salami. The other two, Pathmark and ShopRite, are your typical American supermarkets, offering fresh produce and meats, as well as packaged food at reasonable prices. Restaurants, too, vary in price and food selection. There are a few diners in town, as well as a pizzeria and a couple of bagel shops. The only food chains in town are a Dunkin Donuts and a Starbucks, to adequately caffeinate the commuter population. There is also a weekly farmer’s market from June to August, though the produce selection is limited (picture 1),
and much of its offerings are luxury goods, such as hand-stuffed olives and organic homemade beauty products (picture 2).
South Orange is fortunate to have such an availability of food, and most people are in walking distance from a grocery store, but what about the availability of healthy food, and what is healthy food anyway? Walking down the aisles of Pathmark, shelves full of candy and soda tower overhead. Even Ashley Marketplace’s bakery entices pedestrians with the smells of its fresh cakes and cookies every day. These are certainly not healthy foods. It is my belief that a healthy diet is made up of a variety of unprocessed, or minimally processed, food. Though our culture promotes eating out of a wrapper, humans have lived for thousands of years eating only what the earth provided. Foods in their natural state, or lightly prepared, retain more nutrients and are closer to what we have evolved to eat. Also, as evidenced by the current USDA nutrition guide, MyPlate, as well as the outdated food pyramid, our society has and continues to rely on grain for much of our sustenance. Grains are an excellent source of carbohydrates for energy, but often are processed to the point that they lack other nutrients (which may be “remedied” by spraying the grain products with processed vitamin mixtures). Though healthy food such as fresh produce and minimally processed products are certainly available, there is far more heavily processed, unhealthy food on store’s shelves.
In my pursuit of information I was lucky enough to stumble upon a local community garden I’d never seen before (picture 3).
They have 30 garden beds, and they supply a local charity, Rent Party Pantry, that funds them. RPP is an organization that holds parties in a local Elk’s club, and funds this community garden, as well as other hunger fighting efforts. While there, I spoke to Chris Dickinson, the founder of RPP, a middle-aged man who has lived in South Orange for 20 years. Chris related some very interesting stories about hunger in the area, many of them related to his work on a program called Backpack Pals, an effort of Rent Party Pantry, where they put together bags of food so that children who are receiving free lunches from the school system can have food over the weekend. When I asked him if he knew anyone living with hunger, he told me that the Backpack Pals program asks the students to return the bag the food comes in so they can be reused, and that his neighbor actually returned a bag back to him. This led to a discussion of “middle-class hunger”, which Chris believed was becoming more of a problem. As fewer and fewer people are financially secure for the long-term, more people become vulnerable to unexpected circumstances that can limit time, money, and mobility. He also noted the logistical challenges many people face in maintaining healthy eating habits in our culture, such as time, convenience, temptation, lack of information, and cost. He stressed that strengthening communities to help provide for their own people, using support systems like food pantries and supplemental food programs, is becoming more and more necessary as we face an uncertain future for our current food supplies.
In another serendipitous turn Chad, the young man I interviewed for my last post, was walking past while I was there, and happened to notice me working in the garden. He joined me and I got the chance to ask him a few follow up questions. In our last interview he had mentioned that there was no “overt hunger” in our town, but the implication was that we wouldn’t really know if it was there in many cases. He stuck to that idea, reiterating his beliefs that food security is worse in many localities than the inhabitants might think. He mentioned water scarcity, climate change, and a growing, oversized luxury food market as pressing concerns about food security, locally and worldwide.
As Chad and I finished tying up some tomato plants, the garden manager, Kerri, came over and invited us to a meeting taking place that weekend. The manager of the food pantry across the street from the garden was organizing a meeting of minds for individuals in the community and surrounding communities working against hunger issues. With another turn of fate, I found myself in an open forum on hunger, listening to the people leading efforts not only in my community, but surrounding communities. There was much talk about the “hidden hunger” of our communities, and the working poor, bringing up discussions on how to reach those who need support. While there are many logistical limits and challenges in strengthening these community support structures, many of the most promising ideas and inspiring stories were those that relied on the power of the community to tighten these supports and prevent the most vulnerable members from falling through the cracks: the elderly living alone, poor young men, single parents, all groups that may worry about becoming a burden or who may not seek out support on their own.
While the discussion went everywhere from how to assess need at food pantries to the bureaucratic hurdles to opening food support networks in the community, the largest common factor I noticed was that all of these problems required a personal investment from the members of the affected communities. When a neighborhood keeps an eye out for a senior living alone, there is support to prevent hunger, with compassion. When an assistant principal drives around to deliver food for needy students in order to protect their privacy, there is support to prevent hunger, with dignity. The stores we buy our food in don’t feed us, the work of human hands and minds do. With strong communities working together, hunger can be overcome.
By Andy Warren