When nearly 400 students from around the US gather at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., tomorrow, their purpose will be neither academic nor strictly social. What unites them is an urgent problem not often high on young people's list of concerns: hunger and homelessness.
For four days, participants at the 12th annual conference of the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness will attend workshops outlining programs to fight hunger. They will listen as currently homeless men and women tell their stories. And they will learn how to mobilize other students on their campuses for National Hunger and Homelessness Week, Nov. 14-20.
In a land of plenty, widespread hunger remains a national embarrassment, an inexcusable problem. It stalks the poorest inner-city neighborhoods. It even creeps into middle-class suburbs, where downsizing can change family budgets overnight. As one measure of white-collar hunger, every October collection bins appear in our suburban church. Members are invited to contribute canned goods to a local food pantry to help needy families.
Unlike the homeless, whose blanketed forms in urban doorways and outstretched hands on city streets make them hard to miss, the hungry remain invisible. In the midst of record prosperity, advocates for the less fortunate face a daunting task: how to make those with full shopping carts and well-stocked cupboards believe that millions of Americans go hungry.
To spread that message, writers nationwide are reading from their works to benefit Writers Harvest, an annual literary event to fight hunger and poverty. Sponsored by Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger group in Washington, the readings in October and November are taking place in 27 states, on campuses and in bookstores and churches. Since 1992 they have raised $600,000.
In Las Cruces, N.M., last week, hundreds of people attended a Writers Harvest benefit. Far smaller was the gathering at the Salvation Army in Cambridge, Mass., where five formerly homeless women read their poetry. All had once relied on donated food to feed their families.
"People at the bottom of our society deserve to have food for themselves and their children," says Deborah Byrne, organizer of the Cambridge event. "Food is not something that should be based on how much people earn." She herself became homeless after divorcing a battering husband. Although it took her a year and a half to get off the streets, she is now a fellow at Harvard University and editor of a magazine called the Boston Poet.
Another Share Our Strength effort, the Children's Hour, asks workers in the United States to donate one hour of 1999 earnings to combat childhood hunger and poverty. More than 14 million children live below the poverty line.
Already, hopeful signs exist that child poverty might be an issue in the presidential campaign. Last week former Sen. Bill Bradley unveiled his plan to reduce the number of poor children by half in the next decade. He describes poverty as a "slow-motion national disaster."
Yet Julie Miles, executive director of the student conference in Hartford, still finds disturbing silence at the top. "Our national political leaders haven't wanted to talk about these issues much," she says. "They have done some pretty brutal things in the past few years, with welfare reform and cuts to food stamps. We need some leadership."
She adds, "The changes we need to make to end hunger and homelessness will eventually be fueled by young people. I think they'll demand that our elected officials take a stand and do more to end these problems."
Indifference has become a bad habit. Still, the presence of 400 students meeting in Hartford and the voices of several hundred writers reading from their work mark valiant efforts to make the well-fed care. More important, their compassion helps to fill the empty stomachs of those living meagerly in the shadow of abundance.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society