This season, give the gift of food. And health. And hope.

As the year ends, a lot of folks are thinking about their charitable contributions, and there is no better place for your donated dollars than your local food bank or other nutrition programs.

The need is acute, as the damaging effects of the pandemic continue to ripple through the economy while inflation — the worst in 40 years — wrecks family budgets. As Bloomberg reports, "Hunger is rising this holiday season with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating more than 21 million Americans didn't have enough to eat in early December as pandemic relief payments run out and grocery prices rise."

The crunch is about to get worse. Expanded tax credits, which gave poor families an extra $300 per child each month, recently lapsed and have not been renewed by a Congress struggling with partisan and ideological divisions.

"The majority of parents have reported using the mid-month cash infusions for food, according to Census Bureau surveys between July and September," adds Bloomberg. "Studies have found making the payments permanent could significantly reduce childhood poverty."

But the moral obligation to alleviate hunger is combined with very practical benefits. Think of food as an investment, which actually generates generous dividends. Few, if any, charitable gestures can make such a direct and decisive impact on the lives, and futures, of children.

Dr. Megan Sandel, co-director of the Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic, described for NPR the effects of malnutrition: "We'll see what you think of as a really cute 1-year-old. And when you start talking to their mother, you realize the child's 2 years old and hasn't outgrown their 12-month-old clothes. ... That child (is) not getting enough to eat, not gaining weight, but they're actually starting to stunt their height and potentially stunt their brain growth during a really critical period.

"And those can be really impressive changes that result in kids, say, not growing up well, not being able to show up to kindergarten ready to learn, and we pay those consequences over a lifetime," Dr. Sandel explained. "And so time is of the essence. We need to really make sure that families don't fall off the cliff, especially in this time with such high food inflation."

The impact of chronic hunger continues to echo well past early childhood. When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced a 27% increase in food stamp benefits, he emphasized that improving family diets "is more than a commitment to good nutrition -- it's an investment in our nation's health, economy and security."

"Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health care costs and more," Vilsack added.

Public policy can certainly help combat hunger, and more robust food stamp allowances are a positive step. Extending the child tax credit is another imperative. But fortunately, food is an area were government is not the only recourse or resource. Communities and individuals can make a big difference as well.

Take Niyati Parekh, professor of public health nutrition at New York University, who notes, "around one-third of all food globally is wasted, especially nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables and dairy. How can we divert food, particularly perishables, from being wasted and redirect it to those who are food insecure?"

Her answer is creating a mobile app called Food2Share, designed as a digital marketplace to connect local restaurants with food-insecure individuals. Once the app is launched, people will be able to claim unused food from local restaurants.

Then there is Turquoise LeJeune Parker, an elementary schoolteacher in Durham, North Carolina, who realized several years ago that many of her students were going hungry during vacations because they relied so heavily on subsidized meals provided at their schools.

She started small, raising enough money to feed 22 students during the Christmas holidays. This year she raised more than $100,000, reports The Washington Post, and "about 5,200 students took home bags filled with a two-week supply of cereal, bread, peanut butter, pasta, granola bars, oatmeal, beans, mac 'n' cheese, canned chicken, fruit and vegetables."

"It really took off and made such an impact for these families that I knew I had to keep going," Parker told the Post. "Food is something that no one can do without. It's not only a basic human need, it's a human right."

Not everyone can have the impact of Niyati Parekh or Turquoise Parker. But everyone can find a way to help make food a "human right."

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

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