- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

My neighbor jokingly asked if I’d hit the lottery. “I saw groceries being delivered to your house, and I thought you must have won Powerball,” he said.

I wish. The simple answer is that I hate the grocery store and ordering groceries online through Peapod.com not only costs me just $4.95, it also saves big bucks on my fragile back, which aches after decades of lugging bags filled with water jugs, milk jugs and detergent jugs.

Still, I’m acutely aware that being able to shop online I am among the fortunate individuals, who are prone to pronounce, “my cup runneth over.” This is the upbeat greeting I’ve adopted from those chipper church folks who like to say, “I’m blessed and highly favored” when you ask them how they’re doing.

Five bucks doesn’t seem much to me these days, but I remember when I would stretch those dollars into a couple of meals for my babies. I could make a mean tuna casserole — tuna, cream of mushroom soup and a box of macaroni and cheese — for about $2. (I still pass this staple recipe on to my college students every semester when we discuss covering government budgets.) Today, you can barely buy a box of cereal and a gallon of milk with the money it costs me to have my Peapod.com groceries dumped in my kitchen.

No wonder that 33 million Americans, 13 million of them children, are “food insecure” and going hungry each year and the number is steadily increasing. No wonder, too, that a group of faith-based leaders and volunteers is meeting in the District this week to raise awareness about hunger and poverty during their National Hunger Awareness Day activities and the Interfaith Convocation on Hunger called “One Table, Many Voices: A Mobilization to End Poverty and Hunger.”

The church services, workshops, rallies and lobbying events are sponsored jointly by Bread for the World, the Washington-based anti-poverty group Call to Renewal, and America’s Second Harvest: the National Foodbank Network. An additional 1,400 anti-hunger events are being hosted nationwide for National Hunger Awareness Day, which is today.

This morning, about 1,500 participants are scheduled to rally at MCI Center before descending on Capitol Hill this afternoon to lobby for passage of the Hunger-Free Communities Act. The bipartisan measure, introduced in both chambers last week, seeks to commit the president and Congress to ending hunger by 2015 and, more immediately, prevent reduction of food stamp stipends.

“The face of hunger touches every community in the nation, particularly when you’re talking about emergency hunger,” said Ertharin Cousin, chief executive officer of America’s Second Harvest. “[Lawmakers] recognize that hunger is not a partisan issue.

“So often when we think about hunger, we don’t think about domestic hunger; we think of starvation in developing countries around the world,” Ms. Cousin said. “We recognize [world hunger] and support those efforts, but we want to eliminate hunger here in our country.”

Senior citizens make up the fastest-growing population of the hungry because of the rising cost of housing, gasoline and health care, Ms. Cousin said. “They are being forced to choose between basic needs.”

There is a more regular, or “chronic use of food pantries and feeding centers than in the past 25 years,” she said, because “more people are working for minimum wage, and their checks just don’t go far enough, and they come to the pantry when their funds run out at the end of the month.”

Emergency food-assistance needs, for example after a divorce or sudden separation, are growing, too. “Food insecure” means a household struggles to get food for all members of a family at some point during the year.

“They don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Ms. Cousin said, even though 47 percent of hungry families have at least one adult who is working.

“It’s not like people aren’t trying. They don’t have the dollars,” she said. America’s Second Harvest represents 85 percent of food banks nationwide, including the National Capital Area Food Bank here. Spokesman Ross Frazier said his group moved 2 billion pounds of food and grocery products to 23 million Americans, 9 million of them children, last year.

“If we raise awareness about the plight of their neighbors, they’ll respond to that, because one thing we know about Americans is that when called upon to help their neighbors they do,” she said.

One reason the anti-poverty and anti-hunger groups chose this time of year to hold their awareness activities is because Congress is marking up the federal budget.

More importantly, Ms. Cousin said, they wanted to raise awareness about the number of children who will be getting out of school this month and won’t have access to free lunches or school-based lunch programs.

In some District schools, more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free lunches and breakfasts.

“One in every four persons standing in the food line is a child,” Ms. Cousin said.

For those of us who are “blessed and highly favored,” the organizers of National Hunger Awareness Day stress that people can help through donating dollars, donating time for events to raise dollars or working for a community organization. Hunger is 365 days a year, although most volunteers don’t focus on this issue until holidays.

Mainly, the organizers ask for prayers because the “manna from heaven” that comes from above to those who consider themselves “blessed and highly favored” to have a “cup that runneth over” should pass on their good fortune to feed “the least of these” who remain hungry and poor.

As for me, I’m planning to donate $5 every time I fork over $5 to the Peapod grocery delivery man.

For more information on National Hunger Awareness Day, log on to Second Harvest’s Web site, www.secondharvest.org. Or go to www.thehungersite.org, where site sponsors will donate food staples for each person who visits that free Web site.

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