Feeding a Misimpression

By George A. Jones
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 5:27 PM

One can only agree with Mark Winne that the United States needs to rethink how it addresses hunger and poverty. As the head of an anti-hunger group, I can testify that efforts such as ours are only half the solution. But Winne fails to recognize the value of those who are on the front lines combating hunger every day. By minimizing the value of the work of emergency food providers, Winne discourages his readers from engaging in volunteerism and philanthropy.

Winne describes a Connecticut food bank that distributes food without assessing recipients' needs or encouraging them to "seek other forms of assistance." That's rarely the case at D.C.-area food pantries. Most of us offer a variety of support services to help those in need; at my agency, Bread for the City, we provide free, comprehensive services such as case management, medical care and legal representation.

We have also found that our food program is a critical outreach tool that helps get services to the most vulnerable. Many of our clients first come to Bread for the City seeking food; we provide a three-day supply of groceries, then go further: We link our clients up with public benefits to which they are entitled. We represent them in court against unscrupulous landlords. We give them free job physicals to help them secure employment.

Winne insinuates that food banks are enablers of hunger and poverty. In fact, we are a critical part of the solution -- and a part that is currently seriously short of resources.

In his article, Winne painted direct-service providers and civic activists as opponents, which misses the point. Ending poverty and hunger is not a matter of either direct service or political action. Both are necessary. With his article, Winne may have made that work harder. My fear, shared by my colleagues at similar organizations, is that readers of his article will be less inclined to volunteer at or donate to food pantries. That would hurt our ability to do precisely what Winne calls for: advocating and educating.

The hallmark of Bread for the City's success and longevity has been our commitment to providing a wide range of goods, services and resources to D.C.'s poor. We have always known that the mountains of food, clothing and professional services we offer can only take us part of the way in our mission to end poverty. Our busy staff has always carved out time to work to change the systems that govern us. We go to City Hall to testify about legislation that will affect the poor; we work with coalitions to tackle the systemic problems that hurt those in need; and we educate the public, policy-makers, and local and national foundation leaders about what we've learned and witnessed over three decades of service to the poor.

Winne sees the attention that the media pays to stories of holiday charity as a one-day phenomenon, and he describes attempts to feed the needy during this period as an annual "play" that the country puts on to assuage the guilt of the well-off. My experience at Bread for the City is very different. Over the years our holiday food program has helped us expand both our list of supporters and the number of families we serve.

More important, our food pantry provides low-income families with supplemental groceries -- not just during the holidays but year-round. Such families often turn to Bread for the City and other agencies for food only during hard economic times. Even though they are eligible to use our program all year, the typical such family comes only about six times per year, for an average of only three years.

Your neighbors are hungry today. They will be hungry on Thanksgiving, New Year's Day and all the days in between. Yes, over the long term, government must act to end hunger in the United States. But until that happens, the organizations that serve our most vulnerable citizens need your support.

George A. Jones is executive director of Bread for the City, a nonprofit group that provides free services to low-income residents of the District of Columbia.

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