Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
September is National Hunger Action Month, and the nation's food banks are urging residents of the communities they serve to get involved in the fight against hunger.
In Cherokee County, the most visible effort is that done by H.O.P.E. – Helping Others Pursue Enrichment – which operates a community kitchen and a food pantry, along with meal programs for seniors, disabled clients and schoolchildren.
Additionally, local churches and other organizations – like The Clothes Closet & More – have food ministries and/or garden projects to help meet the needs of those in need, but unless the public can identify with those they help, these programs don't have the impact they could.
“Stats help but they don't really paint the true picture,” said Chris Taylor, executive director of Cherokee County Public Health.
Pointing to data released by countyhealthrankings.org, which revealed that of the 232 Texas counties observed, in 2013, Cherokee ranks 181st in health outcomes. Approximately 32 percent of all children in Cherokee County live in poverty; only 8 percent of county residents have access to healthy food.
However, to make a bigger impact of just how great the need for such programs – and the support of them – “I think people need to tell their stories,” Taylor said.
“We also need to educate folks on what food programs do and how much money they save both now and down the road. And we also need to talk about how our programs empower people to begin the process of getting back on their feet.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a study in 2011 that addresses “Household Food Security in the United States,” pointing out that “an estimated 85.1 percent of American households were food secure” – all members had round-the-clock access to enough food for “a healthy, active life.”
However, “the remaining households – 14.9 percent – were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security,” in which “the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and … eating patterns disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food,” the study reported.
Additionally, “57 percent of all food-insecure households participated in one of more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs during the month prior to the survey,” it reported.
Father's Love – a local ministry that serves families in need, put together a 6-minute video encouraging people to take part in a weekend backpack food program for Jacksonville school children.
In the video, Jacksonville elementary school counselors Eric Alvarez and Mandy Bowen described how hunger and programs to combat it impact the lives of their young charges.
Alvarez pointed out that a child is sometimes sent to the principal's office for acting up or for being distressed due to hunger – “kids cannot learn well and adults cannot function at work without good nutrition. Who cares about their work performance if they are starving?” Taylor pointed out.
Or, Alvarez, added, a child sometimes will seek the remains of another child's meal to stave that hunger he or she feels even after eating.
The backpack program provides enough food for a child to feed himself breakfast and lunch over a weekend, and is replenished for the following weekend when he turns in his backpack.
This allows children “to take care of themselves if they need to,” Bowen said.
However, the number of backpacks is limited, so not every hungry child is helped, they said.
“We have children who ask, 'Can I have a food backpack?' but we don't have enough (to distribute),” Bowen said, as Alvarez added, “And we've heard that (a child cannot get a food) bag (backpack) because (the program) has reached its quota for the month.”
By putting a local face on the fight against hunger, awareness becomes greater, giving a community to take a stance, Taylor reiterated.
“Personal relationships are how people are often compelled to make changes in their lives. Pamphlets just don't always get through to people. It always helps to remember that the community's responsibility is to ensure access and opportunity,” he said. “The individual has to take it from there. When your neighbor wins, you win. We don't live in a vacuum.”