Grant Bosse: The leftovers of American abundance
Grant Bosse (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)
Christmas may display America’s wealth and consumer culture. New Year’s Eve celebrates excess indulgence. But no holiday epitomizes the abundance of modern America like Thanksgiving, the day we make a feast so big that we spend the rest of the weekend eating the leftovers. As we contemplate yet another turkey sandwich and polish off the last of the pumpkin pie, it seems like a good time to focus on making sure our neighbors don’t go to bed hungry.
Since 1984, New Hampshire Catholic Charities has run the New Hampshire Food Bank. This serves as a clearinghouse for more than 400 nonprofit groups across the state, distributing 8.5 million pounds of food a year to Granite State families in need. Food banks, of which NHFB is the largest, account for 44 percent of the food distributed through local food pantries, according to an exhaustive 2010 study. About half of the pantries get some food from federal programs, and almost all rely heavily on local churches, charity food drives by groups like the Boy Scouts, and donations from local stores and farmers. Seventy percent buy food directly using cash donations. Collectively, your canned goods and your checks add up to more than 19 million pounds of food going to low-income New Hampshire families every year.
New Horizons in Manchester is the Food Bank’s biggest customer, and also the largest soup kitchen, food pantry and homeless shelter in the state. Charlie Sherman has served as the executive director at New Horizons for the past three years. Every night, they serve a five-course meal to 250 to 300 people, no questions asked. You walk in, you eat, with no need to show where you live or how much money you make.
The New Horizons food pantry is limited to low-income Manchester residents, handing out $200 worth of groceries each month to about 900 families. Sherman says that wouldn’t happen without the program’s largest donor, Hannaford Supermarkets.
“We wouldn’t be here without Hannaford,” Sherman says. New Horizons sends three vans out every day to six area stores, collecting food that’s nearing its sell-by date. That food is turned around immediately at the pantry. Hannaford donated $400,000 worth of food last year to New Horizons.
The soup kitchen gets some donations from local restaurants, including Longhorn and Olive Garden, but relies mostly on food purchases. Sherman says fresh fruits and vegetables are the hardest to get and the most expensive, but a new 2,200-square-foot greenhouse should cut the kitchen’s groceries bill considerably.
“We spent $20,000 on vegetables through August,” Sherman adds. “We’re hoping to grow 18,000 pounds of our own vegetables every year.”
As the recession slowly turned into a tepid recovery, Sherman says more and more working families were turning to the soup kitchen and food pantry for help. He says the number of children eating there is up 63 percent this year.
“That’s one of the reasons we see so many families in our soup kitchen every night,” Sherman explains. “We serve a hot, healthy meal every night. It’s a cost factor, but also kids are getting a nutritious meal, which is healthier than if they’re going to a fast-food joint.”
Parents aren’t only looking for help buying food, but in getting a healthy meal on the table. As people get back to work, take a second job, or a second shift to make ends meet, there may not be anyone at home in time to cook supper for the kids.
“It’s discouraging when you hear the economy is getting better, and our numbers continue to grow,” Sherman says.
As we look for better ways to feed the hungry, it would help to accurately assess the problem. We don’t have a hunger problem in America. We have a distribution problem, and we have a nutrition problem, each of which require far different solutions than if we simply didn’t have enough food to go around.
The biggest problem for inner cities is lack of access to real grocery stores. Big city unions fight to keep Walmart, now America’s largest grocer, out of town. This leads to food deserts, where people without cars have to choose between fast food and convenience stores. If we can get people into the supermarket, food has never been cheaper.
Salt was once so valuable that the Romans used it to pay their legions, giving us the word salary. Raw ingredients like sugar, flour, rice, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots and bananas are cheap, and the start of a good pantry. Now, it’s too cheap to meter. Eggs, milk, chicken and beef are reasonably priced. Every supermarket offers fresh fruit, greens and seafood all year long. If you were to plot the cost of a calorie over the last hundred years, the line would be approaching zero.
Food is cheap. But meals are expensive. Prepared, packaged and preserved foods cost a lot because we’re not paying for the food. We’re buying time. It’s when we stop cooking that food prices soar. Naked DC writer Emily Zanotti took the SNAP Challenge, feeding two people on $63 a week, and managed to eat like a “full-blown foodie hipster.” Her first meal was “Chicken Milanese with frise salad and shredded parm, mushroom and herb risotto.”
The NH Food Bank offers the Cooking Matters course, a six-week program designed to teach low-income families how to shop for healthy, affordable food and turn it into nutritious meals. Now, I don’t want to turn us all into foodie hipsters. But basic cooking skills are as important to tackling hunger in America as federal spending on food stamps.
(Grant Bosse is Editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a Senior Fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)