Each spring and early summer in Kansas, fields of golden wheat stretch their friendly wave to passers-by, providing stunning evidence of the state’s historical supremacy in wheat production and research.
In the breadbasket of America, it’s difficult to sell the notion that people are living hungry in this country.
But recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report on hunger in America, noting that while gains are being made, more than 17.2 million U.S. households -- and 48.8 million people -- are having difficulty providing food due to a lack of resources, which the USDA terms food insecurity.
The problem is far from isolated to the East and West coasts, where media reports on hunger are more common. In 2010, 14.5 percent of Kansans -- nearly 400,000 people, equal to 1 in 7 -- lived in a state of food insecurity.
And, 1 in 20 Kansans -- or 5 percent -- is in a state of very low food security, which means a household is unable to regularly provide food, and eating patterns are disrupted due to a lack of money or other resources.
“Hunger still exists in Kansas, even in 2011…real, debilitating, life-threatening hunger is out there,” said Matt Lindsey, executive director of Kansas Campus Compact, a group of state colleges and universities that provide service and volunteer opportunities for students.
In the past year, the 12 colleges and universities that make up the compact joined up to focus on the state’s hunger issues as a student-led service project. They’re part of several state and university efforts to curb -- and maybe even eliminate -- hunger in this state.
“I hope it goes just beyond canned food drives, that if I donate a couple nonperishable items that we’ve addressed hunger in our community,” Lindsey said. “There’s a need for a deeper commitment of time to help people get out of hunger and a need to address the systemic causes of hunger.”
Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said food assistance programs across the country are part of the big picture solution.
“USDA’s report underscores the critical role that federal nutrition assistance programs play in helping struggling American families put food on the table until they can get back on their feet,” Concannon said.
“Many families receive assistance not because they want to, but because they need it as a last resort to make ends meet. As the economy continues to recover and jobs are created, we hope to see the number of families in need of nutrition assistance shrink,” he said.
Sociologist Mark Nord is one of the co-authors of USDA’s report on Household Food Security, which was released in September. He said this year’s report can’t pinpoint the exact impact of nutrition assistance programs, but USDA did show that 2009 federal stimulus funds targeted to food assistance programs decreased food insecurity by 2.2 percent in low-income households.
That doesn’t surprise Sandy Procter, who coordinates the Family Nutrition Program and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in Kansas.
“We are not a gamble,” she said. “We have shown the ability to make the changes, make these positive effects on people’s lives.”
The Family Nutrition Program, known nationally as the SNAP-Ed program, is available in more than 70 Kansas counties, Procter said. The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program was established in 1969 to help young families better feed themselves and their children. It’s available right now in nine Kansas counties and in 2010 had 5,700 youth who participated in local programs.
Both programs aim to help families with low incomes, focusing on food safety, cooking skills, food resource management, and nutrition education.
“I feel like hunger has gone more mainstream,” Procter said. “Communities understand what needs to happen to support funding, and especially support those who are temporarily thrown into a situation where food insecurity is a reality.”
In Garden City, K-State Research and Extension program assistant Bertha Mendoza teaches Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program classes, primarily in Spanish and to many residents whose native language is Spanish. She’s been on the job just over a year, but already has graduated 53 program participants.
One of Mendoza’s key messages is that eating healthy is just as important as stretching a family’s limited dollars.
“For example,” she says, “a case of pop costs more than a gallon of milk. We compare the nutrition, a soft drink versus a glass of milk. The calories are about the same, but the nutrition value is higher in milk than a soft drink. It’s up to them to make the decision: I can spend $5 for a case of pop, or I can spend $5 for milk.
“Usually by the second class they’ll come back and say, ‘it really helped me out. We don’t have any more pop at home, or we just have it occasionally. The $5 that I was using for pop now I’m putting into milk. And I’m feeling good for my family.’”
The Kansas Campus Compact’s Lindsey says his group also will continue to support educational opportunities. The compact will sponsor the second annual Kansas Hunger Dialogue in March 2012; and student groups will continue such local efforts as community gardens, farmers markets and Campus Kitchens.
This month, the 12 compact members are among at least 15 Kansas schools hosting food-packaging events. Together, those schools have a goal of 1 million food packages for hungry people in northern Africa.
“Worldwide, more people die every day from hunger than die from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined,” Lindsey said. “If hunger is not addressed, those other things can not be addressed.
“Hunger is both a global and a local issue. We can’t separate the two. That shouldn’t surprise people from Kansas because our agricultural economy is the same way,” he said.
Kansas State University’s food-packaging events are planned for Oct. 23 at K-State-Olathe, and Oct. 30 at the main campus in Manhattan. Together, the university hopes to prepare 90,000 packages. For more information on the statewide effort, visit http://swipeouthunger.com/index.php/kansas-state-university.