Tackling hunger in the Mid-Ohio Valley

What does hunger really look like? If you were to google search the term hunger you would likely see hundreds of images of people, young and old, in far-away countries, with boney faces and eyes that seemed to implore for help. While the depth of heartbreak when looking at these images is real, there is a face of hunger that is far too common and all too often overlooked. Hunger is real. Food insecurity is a critical problem. The crisis is now and it is right here in our own community. West Virginia suffers from a food insecurity rate of 15.3 percent. Food insecurity means that there simply are not enough resources for all members of the household to have nutritionally adequate food. Food insecurity means difficult choices are being made between basic needs and nutritionally adequate food. That means that one in six struggle with hunger. One in six children will worry about where their next meal is coming from.

Those numbers seem staggering, almost unbelievable. In a community where one of our greatest modes of entertainment is dining out, there are neighbors amongst us who struggling every single day to access healthy, nutritious foods. There are families living day to day, often making no win decisions between healthy foods and basic living expenses. These families are not confined to one section of our community or a certain grid of streets. These people are often right in the mix of our neighborhoods, congregations, families, and sometimes even our workplaces. When we know that 50 percent of the people in the Mid-Ohio Valley report being less than two paychecks away from a financial crisis, it is not so difficult to see disaster looming in the shadows. Think how quickly an unexpected illness, job loss or even a reduction in hours can impact a household budget. The unexpected can cause the unthinkable. A budget that was already delicately balanced can plummet into dangerous and disastrous circumstances all too rapidly.

What does one in six really mean? What does that look like in concrete terms? It means that walking into a classroom full of 24 sweet little kindergarten faces, four of those are hungry faces. That is an entire table of students. Four of those children worry about getting to school too late to be served breakfast. Four of those children often tuck lunch remnants in their backpacks to ensure that they have something to eat in the evenings or weekends. Four of those faces will struggle to be attentive and focused and will not be prepared to learn, because they are hungry.

What does one in six look like in our senior populations? One in six means that we increasingly see seniors making difficult choices between healthy food options and necessary medical care. Many of these seniors already have chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure- conditions that can be mitigated by healthy food options. The number of food insecure seniors is a growing segment of our community hunger crisis. As the baby-boomer generation continues to age, the number of food insecure seniors is expected to rise.

One in six people in our community will visit a food pantry or utilize a community feeding program this year. Many rely on these community programs to maintain healthy food options for their families and simply could not sustain themselves without this support. Even with these programs, the struggle remains static; the struggle is all too real. Where would they be without these generous, supportive community programs? How can we live in community where we have so much and know that some are scraping to maintain the most basic existence? I often wonder that when I stand in front of my well stocked cabinets. I am reminded that one in six mothers went to work that morning without eating just to ensure that there was plenty for their children. One in six children didn’t have the option of picking their favorite cereal before heading out to school. One in six grandfathers chose a far less healthy selection of groceries just to ensure that the budget allowed for the many prescription needs that his ailing wife would have that month.

Hunger is real. Hunger is here. Hunger is hard to see and difficult to forget.

Our United Way is committed to community collaborations that address hunger. We strive to diminish food insecurity and promote healthy food access for everyone in our community. Many of the challenges our community faces seem insurmountable. Many of the challenges require high level thinking, spans of great time and experts of all academic expertise. We believe that Hunger is not that complicated. Feed People. Simple.

Our Hunger Solutions Initiative supports the programs in our community that make the most impact, provide the greatest outreach and quite frankly, work the most efficiently. We are committed to the belief that hunger can be successfully addressed and resolved if we think creatively and act collaboratively. We are blessed to have many partners who echo our belief! This week our team will spend a day at the WV Legislature advocating and sharing our story during Hunger Free WV Day. Hunger is a complex issue; we believe there can be some simple solutions. Want to become a part of that solution? You can give to your United Way and designate your gift to the cause of Hunger Solutions. Every dollar counts, because every person matters.

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Stacy DeCicco is the executive director of the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

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