Drivers inching their way onto a Boston expressway one recent Friday were startled to see a thin, sandy-haired man standing at the side of the ramp, holding a cardboard sign that read: "Homeless family needs food. Please help."
Despite the poignancy of his plea, most cars ignored him. When one driver handed him several dollars, a smile flickered across his tired face. "Thank you very much, sir," he said earnestly. "God bless."
Passersby could only wonder about the circumstances that had brought this father to this expressway ramp and this act of desperation. A lost job? A mountain of bills? Whatever his sad story, he served as a brief public reminder that hunger remains a huge problem, largely invisible to those of us with full shopping carts and well-stocked larders.
By coincidence, the same week that the father was making his silent appeal, researchers at the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, in Medford, Mass., reported that 12 million American children go hungry or are threatened with hunger. Labeling the type of hunger most common in America "mild malnutrition," they warned about its long-term consequences for children's development.
Today, in an effort to put hunger higher on the national agenda, nearly 1,000 bookstores - 500 independents and 450 Barnes & Noble superstores - are staging an unusual literary benefit. Called Writers Harvest: The National Reading, this fifth annual event to fight hunger will feature more than 2,000 authors reading from their works. Participants include former US poet laureate Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Ken Follett, John Grisham, and Amy Tan.
Bookstores will donate a percentage of the day's sales to Share Our Strength, a hunger relief organization. That group, in turn, will distribute money to soup kitchens, food banks, and local nutrition programs. Other proceeds will come from the sale of "Writers Harvest 2," an anthology of 18 short stories published specifically to benefit antihunger programs.
Last year, the event raised $138,000. This year's goal is $150,000. By any measure, that is a modest amount for the magnitude of the problem. But beyond money, Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, hears in these authors' voices "a chorus raising awareness of the serious problem of hunger in America."
"Safety net," a phrase popular with politicians in the free-spending 1980s, has largely disappeared in the '90s. In its place is "self-sufficiency" - a worthy goal, to be sure. Yet child-advocacy groups warn that welfare reform, as currently framed, could increase the ranks of poor - and hungry -children by 1 million.
November is the month when economists begin forecasting holiday spending patterns. Early fingers testing the retail wind are predicting a strong buying season, especially for those in higher-income brackets. Yet it's also the month when charitable groups begin their urgent holiday appeals to give those in low-income (or no-income) families at least minimal holiday food. The Salvation Army terms its bell-ringing drive "a call for compassion."
Books traditionally offer food for the mind. But considering the wealth of ideas they contain, it's fitting that today, two weeks before Thanksgiving, bookstores are helping to feed the body as well. As Ms. Dove, who is chairing the National Reading, puts it, "Writers create new worlds with their words. Our hope is that Writers Harvest will help create a world without hunger."
That idealism may seem naive in a week when even international relief agencies cannot get available food supplies to hundreds of thousands of starving Rwandan refugees. But in a season when the cornucopia stands as a symbol of abundance, the poet's words offer hope that someday, in a land of plenty, parents will not be forced to choose between food and heat, children will not go to school without proper sustenance, and fathers will not need to beg for grocery money on a chilly urban expressway.
*For more information, call 800-955-8278.