When people talk about hunger and hunger issues, they often picture a homeless man begging on street corner, and while that’s one face of hunger, it’s not completely representative of everyone hunger impacts. Hunger and food insecurity impact people of all ages, from all walks of life. Our customers at the Gallatin Valley Food Bank are working families, seniors, college students, and people living on fixed incomes that don’t allow them to meet their basic needs, these are people that are your neighbors, your friends, and fellow community members. Whether you know it or not, it is very likely someone you know has utilized a program or service from a food bank.
Last year, the Gallatin Valley Food Bank alonehelped over 3,900 households meet their food needs (the Gallatin Valley Food Bank also operates two satellite food pantries in Big Sky and Three Forks). For comparison’s sake, this equates to 11% of all households in Gallatin County and almost 20% of all households in the Bozeman area.
At the Gallatin Valley Food Bank we are committed to understanding the root causes of hunger in our area. We wondered if there was more we could do to reduce our customer’s dependency on emergency food assistance and increase food security beyond increasing limits of program use and increasing the amount of food provided. Ensuring food security means ensuring household economic security, ensuring access to healthy affordable food, ensuring easy access to Federal Nutrition Programs, and finally making sure people have access to emergency food resources.
Last summer, while conducting program evaluation, Gallatin Valley Food Bank asked customers if there were ways to help them improve their situation and seek emergency food assistance less. What we found was that food insecurity and hunger are symptoms of economic insecurity. The economic climate is challenging for many of our customers, many are working low-wage jobs that are just not enough to make ends meet.
While we have little control over things like the economy, the Gallatin Valley Food Bank is dedicated to empowering our customers and giving them the necessary resources to weather such challenges. We are currently developing programs to provide our customers with practical skills training – including but not limited to; nutrition, gardening, food budgeting, shopping strategies, hands-on meal preparation, food safety and meal planning. Most of these activities will take place at our Community Café, a program of the Food Bank and Human Resource Development Council that provides free, nutritionally balanced, meals 365 days a year. Shorter, condensed lessons and handouts as well as food samples will be provided to food bank clients that want extra information and exposure to new and different foods while they wait to shop.
Ultimately, we hope to empower customers and increase their individual capacity to meet their own food needs, by providing customers with skills, resources and connections that will help them cope with limited budgets, unexpected expenses, or other challenges.
So while the recession is thought to be over, its impact will be felt for some time. But ending hunger isn’t just about giving customer’s skills and resources to reduce dependency on emergency food assistance programs, it’s also about engaging customers, volunteers, and community members in their local food system. Work at this level could produce a critical shift from providing services and support to organizing citizens and civic organizations and businesses to improve the local food environment and conditions that cause food insecurity. Communities with resilient food systems are better able to withstand natural disasters that put temporary limits on food distribution, or high fuel costs that might drive up food costs.
Ending hunger also involves changing the way we view food. Access to healthy food should be viewed as a basic human right. Communities also need to recognize that the ability to access healthy food is often related to multiple issues and not just a result of living in poverty. While the Food Bank strives to meet basic food needs, we must also foster opportunities for community members to build mutual support networks, connect to resources, and find their voices so that they can tell their stories.
“I’m Monica Ruiz for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization that’s been building communities by linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions for 40 years. Find us online at www.aeromt.org.”
This commentary originally aired on April 24, 2014 on Montana Public Radio.