Brent Batten: Group puts hunger on the map

BRENT BATTEN

Solving hunger in a community isn’t as easy as clicking a mouse.

But getting a sense of the problem now is.

Feeding America, which bills itself as the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, has produced an interactive map showing the level of food insecurity in each county in the United States.

Food insecurity is a U.S. Department of Agriculture term indicating lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Food insecure households may be fine one week or month, but struggle the next, being forced to make trade-offs between food and other necessities, such as medicine or housing.

Using income data, unemployment rates and food costs in different areas, Feeding America put together Map the Meal Gap. It estimates both the overall food insecurity rate and the rate of food insecurity among children.

If the map is accurate, in Collier and Lee counties the number of children facing hunger is disturbing.

Overall, 16 percent of Collier residents are deemed food insecure, below the state rate of 17 percent. But 31 percent of children fall into the category, higher than the state rate of 27 percent for children. In Lee County the overall figure is right at the state average, but the child rate is 30 percent. Food insecurity falls disproportionately on young people in Southwest Florida.

Al Brislain, CEO of the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, which distributes food to some 200 agencies in a five-county area, doesn’t dispute the Feeding America findings. “That seems about right,” he said. “The number that really jumps out at us is the children’s number, 30 percent. It doesn’t speak well for our area.”

The data in Map the Meal Gap is from 2009, the most recent year for which figures were available.

But Brislain doubts the situation has improved.

A few years ago, Harry Chapin Food Bank provided food for about 12,000 people a month. Now the figure is 30,000, he said. “We’re up 150 percent in terms of demand for emergency food programs. It’s leveled off some. We’re still seeing a slow increase. It’s not really dropped off yet.”

Harry Chapin Food Bank is part of the Feeding America network of food banks. It doesn’t provide assistance to individuals but supplies food to local agencies which in turn hand it out to hose in need.

There’s no mystery to the problem. A down economy on top of Southwest Florida’s service-based, seasonal workforce, equates to families and individuals teetering on the edge of hunger.

Harry Chapin Food Bank was featured in an ABC News report Wednesday about the plight of middle class workers being driven to food pantries after losing one, or even, two jobs.

As is the case with most charities, summer means fewer volunteers and donations coming in.

“If you asked me a month or two ago, I would have said we were doing fine,” Brislain said. “The last month or two has been really, really hard.

“The kids are back in school. That’s good news for the working poor.”

Beyond that, he said, “We’re waiting for the holidays, when people start giving.”

To try to bridge the gap until the holidays, the food bank plans a drive in conjunction with LeeTran on Sunday, Sept. 18.

LeeTran buses will be stationed at Publix stores in Lee County that day. Shoppers can donate food and the buses will deliver it to the Harry Chapin warehouse to be offloaded by volunteers. Last year the drive brought in 25 tons of food. “It’s incredible when they (the buses) get back. We unload 50,000 pounds in two and a half hours,” Brislain said.

To see Map the Meal Gap, go to feedingamerica,org.

To donate, volunteer or learn more about the Harry Chapin Food Bank go to harrychapinfoodbank.org.

We can’t solve hunger by clicking on a mouse, but doing so can be a step in that direction.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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