Feeding the hungry – a job for the well-fed

Every Spring on a mid-May Saturday, letter carriers across the country adopt an unofficial motto for the day: "The mail – and the food – must get through."

The occasion is an annual drive, now in its 10th year, called "Stamp Out Hunger." As carriers in more than 10,000 communities deliver mail, they also collect nonperishable food – canned soup, juice, pasta, cereal, rice. Donations go to local food pantries to feed people in need.

Hunger is silent and often invisible. It is local as well as global. And it stalks all age groups, from the youngest to the oldest.

Hunger is also on the rise. An estimated 33 million Americans, 13 million of them children, are hungry or at risk of hunger, according to Second Harvest, the nation's largest food bank.

No wonder hunger is making news this month. In addition to the Postal Service's food drive last Saturday, the Senate passed a bill last week restoring the right of legal immigrants to receive food stamps.

By far the saddest hunger-related headlines this month involve a study on the health of low-income children, released last week by Boston University. It shows that among infants and toddlers brought to a Boston hospital and a Minneapolis clinic for medical care, there has been a 45 percent increase from 1999 to 2001 in those who are hungry or malnourished and underweight.

Deborah Frank, a pediatrician who headed the study at Boston University, attributes the increase to three factors: unemployment, a recession, and declining welfare benefits. She also notes that fewer people are receiving unemployment benefits. "Many of the jobs that former welfare recipients found during the economic boom were so part-time that they don't qualify for unemployment benefits," she says.

She warns that proposed changes in welfare reform, requiring more mothers to work 40 hours a week, could increase the problem.

"Policymakers are obviously not taking into consideration the needs of infants and toddlers," Dr. Frank says. "Many mothers will not be able to work long hours, because they will not have a safe place for their children. They will be cut off from benefits and will not have resources for their children's survival needs." When there's not enough money for groceries, parents are more likely to buy Kool-Aid instead of milk, pasta instead of vegetables.

Food represents a paradox in the United States. For many Americans, it is too plentiful, producing what is being called a crisis and an "epidemic" of obesity. The current overdue attention to that problem may mask the reality that, for others, money for food is tight. Even in leafy suburbs, where well-kept houses and manicured lawns give an air of middle-class prosperity, not everyone has a full larder.

Tia Hawks, executive director of the Needham Community Council in Needham, Mass., a suburb of 28,000 west of Boston, counts 158 local families who use the council's food pantry. She also notices a shift in their demographics.

"Ten years ago, we had a lot of single moms and kids," she says. "Now, in the past three or four years, more than half are over the age of 65. They're on fixed incomes and their expenses have gone up."

Last Saturday afternoon, as letter carriers in Needham brought their food to a local elementary school, Ms. Hawks and a group of volunteers buzzed around the cafeteria, sorting canned goods, rice, and cereal. The 7,500 cans they received fell short of the 9,000 Hawks had anticipated. That exacerbates the shortages pantries face every summer.

The biblical injunction to feed the hungry has not changed over centuries. Dr. Frank sums up the moral imperative in four short, heart-rending words, saying simply, "Children starve very quietly."

The letter carriers who spend extra time on a spring Saturday collecting food express the same need in their three-word slogan, which doubles as a plea: "Stamp out hunger."

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