- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

SHELBYVILLE, Ky. (AP) - In a state where the risk of hunger haunts one in every six people, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles wants to dig deeper into the causes and recruit the entire food chain - from farms to restaurants - to combat the problem.

Quarles formed a statewide Hunger Task Force on Thursday to delve into the problem that one anti-hunger activist called a moral and economic issue for Kentucky. The initiative comes as food banks struggle to keep up with demand in a state with a strong farming heritage.

Hunger hits home in urban and rural parts alike, Quarles said.

“There are many faces of hunger in Kentucky,” Quarles said at Gallrein Farms outside Shelbyville. “You probably know somebody and don’t even realize it, that may have to make that choice between medical care or saving for tomorrow by starving today. It’s an unfortunate reality for far too many Kentuckians.”

Quarles, in his first year as agriculture commissioner, wants the task force to study the sources of hunger and identify successful anti-hunger programs that could be expanded across Kentucky. The group plans a series of meetings across the bluegrass state.

As part of the anti-hunger campaign, Quarles said he’s aiming for participation spanning food production and distribution - from farmers and processors to grocery stores and restaurants.

Task force members include farmers, business and faith leaders, academic and government officials, anti-hunger activists and representatives of agricultural groups.

Tamara Sandberg, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, called hunger a “hidden but serious problem.”

Sandberg, a task force member, said the state’s charitable network is struggling to keep pace with demand. Food banks set up to be emergency providers of food assistance have “turned into a main staple of many families’ efforts to keep food on the table,” she said.

The state’s hunger rate among children outpaces the overall rate, with approximately one in every four Kentucky youngsters going to bed hungry, she said.

In Shelbyville, demand for food assistance is rising at the faith-based Serenity Center.

Every Wednesday, lines form hours before the center’s volunteers distribute food for people in need, said the center’s director, Jim Oates. The center also offers emergency food boxes throughout the week, and provides food assistance for low-income children and elderly.

The center has distributed, on average, about 20,000 pounds of food per week this year, up from about 15,000 pounds weekly in 2015, he said.

Last year, members of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks distributed 52 million meals statewide in partnership with more than 800 local agencies, Sandberg said. That was up from 50.4 million meals distributed in 2014.

Fresh produce accounted for nearly 30 percent of the food distribution, she said, but most of that produce came from outside Kentucky. She hopes the anti-hunger initiative will result in more Kentucky-grown produce going to feed hungry Kentuckians.

Kentucky farmers are eligible to receive a tax credit equal to 10 percent of the value of edible agricultural products donated to food banks, according to the Kentucky Association of Food Banks website.

Task force member Mary Courtney said that with slim on-the-farm profit margins, it would be a “huge help” to offer farmers more financial incentives as well as logistical support, including how to get products to food banks.

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