Five young men and a gray-haired woman are getting ready to feed hundreds of people tonight. But they’re not cooking food. They’re not even in a kitchen.
They’re loading pallets with canned goods in a massive warehouse without air-conditioning on a day when the temperature hasn’t yet sunk below 90. Using printed lists, the volunteers count out 40 cases of white potatoes, 20 cases of chick peas, 14 cases of pears. The canned pork is the heaviest and the three high-school students wince as they stack it. The shift supervisor picks up each groaning pallet with a forklift and drives it to the dock where the food will be loaded on trucks that will travel to churches in a nearby county.
In another section of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina Charlotte distribution warehouse, dozens of workers busily sort donated goods, items often returned to retailers along with overstocks from online sellers, into giant bins about five feet across and nearly chest high. Rice. Pasta. Cereal. Aisle after aisle. Pet food. Baby food. There’s a whole separate area for items headed to BackPack programs that provide weekend meals for kids who rely on school meals and don’t have ready access the rest of the time.
The organization serves a 19-county area and has earned the top ranking from Charity Navigator. Agencies such as this one, combined with food pantries, community kitchens, and other feeding programs, comprise the backbone of hunger relief programs. And yet, experts report that despite our best efforts locally and nationally we’re not gaining much ground in the larger fight. Throughout the U.S., the number of households facing hunger still hovers near 1 in 9.
Nicole Peterson, associate professor of anthropology at UNC Charlotte, says, “We do an O.K. job with people who need food now because they’re hungry.” Just a phone call or a few mouse clicks will connect a person in need to a meal on any given day. But if that’s the case, why don’t the numbers show more improvement? Peterson is well-versed in explaining the societal issues that create hunger and make it so difficult to alleviate: “It’s not just a result of food scarcity. A lack of employment, housing, and transportation options mean food is harder to afford and access, and while some areas have multiple stores in one block, others have none at all.”
In other words, the same inequities that solidify a lack of upward mobility are the root cause of hunger. And since Charlotte was ranked 50th for upward mobility from among the country’s 50 largest cities, the connection becomes clear: When people can’t escape poverty, it’s hard to escape hunger.
The term “food insecurity” is useful because it allows us to measure not just the number of people without regular access to healthful food, but the degree to which they are limited. According to the USDA, food insecurity in North Carolina is higher than the national average; in every state that surrounds us the number is near or below that national average.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council examined these topics in its 2015 report, The State of the Plate. Executive Director Erin Brighton noted in her introduction: “While the statistics aren’t always pleasant, they do have the impact of mobilizing a community to make important changes. No one wants to hear that 35% of Mecklenburg County households with kids faced food insecurity in the past year or that some parents have to make the difficult choice between food for their families or medicine for themselves. Numbers like these can be hard to hear but they can also galvanize people to take action and work together to improve our food system.”
It’s not as if other places get it right while Charlotte gets it wrong. Affluence and poverty collide in lots of locales; our neighbor Atlanta is now ranked as the city with the worst income inequality in the U.S. A city’s wealth doesn’t guarantee its citizens can obtain what they need.
There’s no doubt that people care, even if many overlook an important facet of social justice work: humility. “We need to learn from those who experience food insecurity – What do they need and how do they envision their food system? – rather than assuming we know what’s best,” Peterson says.
In the can-do Queen City, it’s easy to see the mobilization that Brighton mentioned, everywhere from neighborhood food drives to charity galas that raise funds for the daily work of getting people fed. Restaurants routinely donate prepared food to shelters and soup kitchens. Community gardens give residents without green space a place to grow their own fresh food.
Second Harvest estimates their 98,000 volunteers have saved the agency more than $6.4 million. So on that August evening as their two-hour shift winds down, the six-person crew will have lost count of the cases and cartons they’ve stacked, the macaroni and cheese, the cherries, and the navy beans. The students will decide it wasn’t bad and agree they’d maybe do it again. Before the trucks pull away, workers will load eggs, milk, and other prized perishables that they’ll pull from refrigerated storage areas behind wall-sized doors.
Long-term solutions for hunger locally and beyond will mean facing some hard truths and will require the willingness to make systemic changes. An updated State of the Plate report is planned for 2020. “We do a good job of addressing the symptoms,” says Peterson. “Understanding the depth of the problems in our food system is just the first step.”
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.