May 5, 2003
May 10 is the National Association of Letter Carriers Annual Food Drive.
That means letter carriers in more than 10,000 cites and towns across the country will deliver your mail as usual, and will pick up donations of food for local food banks and shelters.
Now in its 11th year, this event is the largest one-day food drive in the United States and has brought in a staggering half-billion pounds of food. Last year alone, letter carriers in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands collected more than 62 million pounds of food.
How does it work? It's simple. All you do is place your food donation by your mailbox. When your letter carrier delivers your mail, he or she will pick up your donation and take it back to the post office where volunteers sort the food and deliver it to local food banks.
"Letter carriers are the heart and eyes of the community, walking and driving through every neighborhood," says William Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. "They see firsthand the need, and recognize the hardship and despair that deny families even the basic necessities of life," he says.
That hardship, according to most studies, is more widespread than ever. With a stagnating economy, low wages, unemployment benefits running out and ever-higher utility prices, millions of Americans today cannot adequately feed themselves or their families.
According to a recent study by Second Harvest, the nation's largest food-relief charity, more than 23 million hungry people turned to emergency food banks in 2001, including 9 million children. Since numbers that large can be hard to fathom, think of it this way: 23 million is the population of America's 10 largest cities combined: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas and Detroit. Imagine every person in those cities going hungry, and you have a glimpse of what hunger in America looks like.
Contrary to stereotypes about poverty, many of the people who turn to food banks for help are employed, own their own homes and live in the suburbs or rural areas. They are what we call "the working poor." In some households, the combined incomes of two adults is still not enough to cover basic necessities.
The harsh reality is that full-time work for many Americans does not mean there will be enough food on their table each night. Or enough money to keep the lights on or the rent paid.
In her best-selling book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," Barbara Ehrenreich writes, "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that 'hard work' was the secret of success: 'Work hard and you'll get ahead' or 'It's hard work that got us where we are.' No one ever said you could work hard -- harder even than you thought possible -- and still find yourself sinking deeper into poverty and debt."
For many children, poverty means living without enough food to thrive and grow. Without adequate nutrition, children face difficulties that can have lifelong implications.
According to Brandeis University's Center on Hunger and Poverty, chronically undernourished children are more prone than their peers to headaches, earaches and sore throats. They suffer higher levels of anxiety, fatigue and irritability. They also suffer academically: They have a hard time grasping basic skills and don't fare as well on tests. They are more likely to be held back a grade, and to suffer depression.
Chronic hunger seems entirely out of place in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world and the source of much of the world's food. But until we alter public policies that set wages so low that many working Americans must choose between paying their bills, going to the doctor or feeding their children, food banks are an absolute necessity.
A simple bag of food -- canned soup, tuna fish, peanut butter, spaghetti and other nonperishables -- left next to your mailbox can make a huge difference in someone's daily life. Please participate in this drive and help stamp out hunger in America.
Patrick Letellier is a lecturer on politics and culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.