Opinion

Fight close to home: rising hunger in Auburn | Klaas

The numbers are expected to climb, and so are the challenges for those fighting hunger in Auburn.

In trying and desperate times, especially with joblessness still caught in the backwash of a lingering, reluctant recovery, food continues to run scarce for local families and individuals.

Debbie Christian knows as much.

"I'm afraid it's going to get worse," said Christian, the executive director of the Auburn Food Bank, "When the economy first took a downturn, you saw a big influx (of people). It balanced out after awhile ... but it has stepped up. All of a sudden, we are seeing an increase."

The numbers reflect tough times for people trying to put food on the table. Christian and her staff are serving a staggering 150-160 families – or an estimated 439 individuals – each day.

Such a demand puts a strain on supplies. Money stretches only so far, and donations ebb and flow. The food bank constantly juggles supply and demand, welcomes all gracious donations and the continued support of a caring community.

And yet, there is no guarantee that every stomach will be fed.

A recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that the recession made a deep mark on Washington's families. The number of hungry households in the state shot up nearly 100 percent from 2008 to the end of 2010. Washington state now ranks as the 11th hungriest state in the nation.

Washington families experiencing hunger nearly doubled from 88,000 to more than 160,000 from right before the recession's onset in 2008 and when the data was collected in December 2010.

The spike in the state's hungry households bucks the national downward trend and demonstrates the persistence of the economic downturn that has yet to show significant signs of recovery for low-income Washingtonians.

The results further confirm what emergency food providers, advocates and those who run critical food and nutrition programs have witnessed in recent years and see each day – the hunger crisis swelled in the shadow of the nasty recession, and the impact falls hard on more low-income families.

"A staggering number of Washingtonians are hungrier after the recession," said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children's Alliance, an advocacy organization dedicated to improving the health, safety, and economic well being of children in Washington state. "As more families face hunger now in a continued downturn, they need food assistance to stabilize them through hard times, help them raise healthy children, and stimulate economic recovery."

Local schools are doing their part.

State School Superintendent Randy Dorn joined local school leaders, the Children's Alliance, Share Our Strength, the Washington State Dairy Council and other partnerships to launch the statewide Fuel Up First with Breakfast Challenge, an awareness, educational and participatory campaign aimed at getting children to eat right. The campaign's goal is to challenge schools and school districts to increase participation in the federally-funded school breakfast programs by 50 percent in the next two years. School districts that make the greatest improvements will be rewarded.

And yet, the problem persists at home.

In Washington, the Children's Alliance estimates that as many as 400,000 children – or 25 percent – live in homes that struggle to put food on the table on a regular basis.

The crisis calls for critical and immediate federal and state action.

As part of the debt limit agreement, Congress is considering slashing or cutting food aid programs, such as Basic Food (food stamps) and Child Nutrition Programs. At the state level last year, the Legislature slashed food benefits in half for immigrant families.

All of which is no comfort to the hungry.

"As federal debt negotiators and state lawmakers make critical decisions in coming months, ensuring all struggling families and children don't go hungry should be a priority," Gould said. "Critical supports, such as food stamps and federal nutrition programs, have worked well to feed families and strengthen the economy. Cutting these supports would have a negative ripple effect, causing more economic distress and hardship."

Hunger and poverty are well acquainted with each other. The nation's poor has swelled to a record 46.2 million – nearly 1 in 6 Americans – as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions struggling and out of work. And the number without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, the most in more than two decades.

The sobering figures came from a Census Bureau report released Tuesday.

Despite the challenges, local volunteers will look to do their part. Auburn will continue to toil. Help is available for those to help themselves.

"I worry about those who don't know we are still here ... or are afraid to ask," Christian said of the food bank. "If you need it, please come, please ask. That's what we are here for."

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