For a young mother named Angela, grocery shopping is a sometime thing. Sometimes she can afford to do it, sometimes she can't.
When money and food are running low, as they were last Friday, Angela heads for a red brick building that bears no resemblance to a supermarket - Grace Baptist Church in Somerville, Mass. Here, workers at a food pantry called Project Soup give her a bag filled with staples: rice, tuna, canned foods, macaroni.
"It helps," Angela says shyly, explaining that she must feed her nine-year-old son and a niece.
For families like Angela's, the need for this kind of help continues. A study released this spring by Second Harvest finds 21 million Americans relying on emergency food assistance at least once during the year. Almost two-thirds are women. Eight million are children, and 3.5 million are elderly. In almost half of families, at least one member works.
"Nearly half the households served through food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters include children under five," says Christine Vladimiroff, president of Second Harvest. Single-parent households account for more than half of recipients.
Two major events next month seek to help. On Saturday, May 9, mail carriers in more than 10,000 cities will collect food donations during the sixth annual Stamp Out Hunger campaign. Organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers, along with the US Postal Service and United Way, it is the nation's largest one-day food drive.
"What's donated locally stays locally," says Drew Von Bergen, national coordinator. The drive is held now because holiday food donations are running low and school lunch programs will soon close. Residents can place nonperishables in a bag by the mailbox. Campbell Soup Co. is donating 10 million pounds of food.
On Sunday, May 3, an estimated 40,000 people will take part in the annual Walk for Hunger in Boston, the nation's largest hunger walk. Sponsored by Project Bread, it raises $3 million a year for food banks and soup kitchens in the state.
One longtime supporter, Sarah Borgeson of Sherborn, Mass., will walk for the 11th time. Her three elementary-school children accompany her for five miles of the 20-mile route. Last year 35 students from their school took part, raising $3,000.
"When I talk to the kids at school I say, 'Give me your interpretation of what you think a hungry person looks like,' " Mrs. Borgeson explains. "Kids will say, 'I think of homeless people or people sleeping on the park bench in the middle of the day covered with newspapers, or keeping warm over heating grates in downtown Boston.' "
She refutes those stereotypes. "We're trying to educate children that you can't look at someone and determine whether they'll go to bed hungry. People who use food pantries are often employed." Some pantries stay open evenings for people who work.
An 'invisible' problem
Hunger, says Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread, can result from a relatively small problem - a child losing a winter coat or a family needing to take a cab to the emergency room in the middle of the night.
"You have to pay your rent or you get evicted," Ms. Parker says. "You have to pay your child care or there's no place to keep your kids while you're working. If you have an old car that is always breaking down, you have to take care of that. The sort of fungible expense that you can decrease a little bit is food."
Yet even these legitimate needs cannot erase the stigma of hunger. As Parker explains, "In the same way that people who are doing well in this economy say, 'How can anyone be hungry?,' those who are hungry say, 'What's the matter with me that I can't make it through the month?' It's a sense of shame families have."
At Project Soup, assistant manager Sandy Harris describes recipients as families with children. "They are working poor, definitely." The pantry serves more than 5,000 people a year, averaging 15 to 20 families a day at the end of the month. Last year it received 4,000 pounds of food from the mail carriers' food drive.
Despite the number of hungry Americans, people like Angela, who is currently unemployed, remain largely invisible.
"In a way, prosperity hides hunger," says Bill Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength in Washington. "The paradox is that although unprecedented amounts of wealth are being created, that wealth is not reaching people below the poverty line, and it's not reaching the organizations designed to help them. Some of it is, but it is by no means proportionate to the number of people needing help."
He notes that a survey of patients in public hospitals, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this month, shows that 1 in 8 had not eaten in the 24 hours prior to their admission because they could not afford food.
Easing these urgent needs, leaders of hunger groups say, will require continued collaboration between public and private sectors. "Charitable intentions alone are not going to be enough to solve this problem," says Mr. Shore. "The government is going to have to play a bigger role. There's no way nonprofits can replace the role of government."
At the same time, he adds, "Private nonprofits can be a lot bigger than they are, not just relying on charitable dollars but finding ways to create their own resources." His organization, Share Our Strength, now owns a consulting service. All profits support anti-hunger work.
Efforts to relieve hunger must also go beyond assistance and focus on the root causes hunger, Shore says. "That is much more complicated and expensive to deal with."
At Second Harvest, a national network of food banks in Chicago, Ms. Vladimiroff's wish list includes helping "the most vulnerable segment" - children. "We need to provide WIC [the federal Women, Infants, Children program] for pregnant mothers and children up to age 5, so there is a secure safety net that children can grow into their potential. And I wish the school breakfast program would reach all poor kids."
She also sees a need to focus on hunger among older people, which is increasing. "We see more and more that corporate pension plans have been cut back for retirees," she says. "We see that Medicare is paying less and medication is more expensive. They're being caught in a squeeze."
Noting the need to reconsider tax policies and redistribute wealth in more equitable ways, Vladimiroff adds, "We can't afford to keep increasing the distance between the top and the bottom in this country. That bottom is not necessarily the stereotypic lazy people who don't want to work. They are very often the hardworking people up at dawn, cleaning our offices, working in hospitals, cleaning bedpans. But they are not able to move out of poverty and have to depend at least in part on charity."
Young people step up
Despite these unmet needs, some activists are encouraged by the quiet service of young people. On April 4, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness in Los Angeles held its 14th annual Hunger Cleanup. An estimated 12,000 students from 200 colleges participated, raising about $100,000 for hunger and homeless efforts.
Borgeson says that when children engage in activities like pledge walks, lessons go beyond having adults lecture them about another social ill. "By getting their own sponsors, and walking, they are making a statement. They're saying, 'These two feet of mine can truly make a difference in the life of a hungry person.' "