food for thought

We’ve had some snow here in New York City. Okay, so it’s a lot of snow, and unless you live under a rock somewhere, this isn’t exactly breaking news. What seems to be news to many people around the country now is the fact that there are many children in our great city who rely on the public school system for up to two of their meals a day. The school also provides a warm, safe place for them. Think of it as shelter from the storm, but not the literal storm outside.

My question to everyone is a simple one. Is it really a surprise that millions of people, children and adults, go starving every day? I don’t think that’s the case. Hunger is a dirty little secret in this country, one that we so easily blame on our government. I’m generally the first person to agree with that theory. The recent farm bill that was passed this week, while slightly better than originally thought we would get passed, is still vivid proof that our Congress people err on the side of big business, over the best interests of tax paying citizens.

But what does that mean for the current situation? The one where our Mayor Bill DiBlasio defends his choice to keep schools open, in the same breathe that he warns of very hazardous conditions. When we’re told that public schools are primarily viewed as a warm place, that serves two meals a day, and serves as a daycare center for children of working parents, what does that evoke in you? Do you agree that it’s a suitable solution, or does it make you want to dig deeper at the root of the problem? Do you feel it’s okay to be complacent while children are left in this situation, pawns of a broken system, or does it inspire you to make the change you want to see in the world?

The right to life shouldn’t just revolve around an unborn fetus. The right to life is missing one salient word—quality. As citizens of these United States, we deserve the right to a quality life. Some may say this is too simplistic a view, and to that I counter that I am fully aware of the uphill battle involved in providing a quality life for all of our citizens. We may be created equal, but the lot we are given at delivery is only one we can change once we become adults.

That doesn’t mean we have to be complacent to the current situation. If we are so outraged at the thought that it was better for children to trek through ice, wind, and snow to get to a hot meal, and safe place, why aren’t we doing something about it? The answer is that some people are working hard for those children, but they need more help. We can move onto the next news story once the warmer weather arrives, or we can let this ignite our hearts and minds to be better citizens.

Two years ago, I spent Thanksgiving with a dear friend. She told me about a program called Backpack Buddies at her school in Raleigh, NC. The volunteer-run program is in place to fill the food gap between Friday lunch and Monday breakfast for children who receive free or reduced-price lunches. The night she told me about this, she also mentioned that they had a waiting list of 20+ families, but not enough funding. I left a few days later, my belly full from days of hot, homecooked meals, and my heart filled with loving memories. I also boarded my plane back to New York, my daughters’ tiny hands wrapped in mine, knowing that the contribution I made to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle meant three children would have something to eat on weekends for the rest of the school year. It wasn’t the full answer to the solution, but it is an example of how we can make a difference in this world. We do not have to be silent. We can be the change we want to see in the world.

It starts now. It starts with me, and you. All of us can make a difference if we really want it.

Below are a few organizations I contribute to here in NYC. I would like to use this post as a gathering place to list other organizations from around the country that are helping fight the good fight. Please leave me a message in the comments with links to charities that other readers might be able to help offer support. The truth is that the Mayor’s reasoning shed light on more than just hunger. It is a spider’s web of child welfare issues and benefits issues (maternity leave, worker’s rights, paid sick leave, etc.) that need to be addressed on a national level. If you volunteer or contribute to organizations that are working on any of these issues, please let me know about them, too.


Food Bank of NY

City Harvest


  • IlinaP

    This post right here encapsulates what makes you wonderful and brings to life the role of food writers and food lovers in the bigger scheme of things. Thanks for writing this.

  • debbie koenig

    Jennie I completely agree with you about what yesterday’s storm showed us. My son goes to a Title I school and some of his classmates NEED for school to be open–their parents work hourly jobs, for low wages, and might lose those jobs if they don’t show up.

    Because we’re Title 1, everyone in school is entitled to free lunch–but school food is pretty awful. This year we brought in Wellness in the Schools, who’ve developed an official alternative menu with the DOE. So that’s one thing.

    The other is the bigger-picture question, about poverty and *why* so many kids need for school to be open. For that, I don’t think the answer is charity (though of course, I support the charities you mentioned!). That can’t be considered a reliable, long-range solution. I think the answer is activism, making sure our elected officials know how important it is for ALL of us to earn a living wage, to be able to take a personal day without fear of losing a much-needed job. In that respect, so far I think de Blasio’s at least *saying* the right things. Wanting to raise the minimum wage in NYC, that sort of thing.

    Have you heard of Moms Rising? They’re an advocacy group that’s working on a host of family issues, with fair wages and sick days among them, and they’re making themselves heard. I blog for them occasionally.

    JP’s Note: Debbie, if it wasn’t clear, that bigger picture question you reference, is exactly what the purpose of my post is about. As with so many complex issues, though, there is no one solution. Charity and activism are partners in this solution. Activism is integral, but it needs something to support it while trying to achieve the long-term goal. That need is what is fulfilled by charitable organizations. Thank you for letting us know about Mom’s Rising, as one option for readers to get involved.

  • magpie

    Right – and the other side of being told that “schools are primarily viewed as a warm place, that serves two meals a day, and serves as a daycare center for children of working parents” is that’s a vitiation of what school is supposed to be: a place for learning. There are many people who think that fixing poverty is the solution to the education problem – your post cements that, from another angle. Fix poverty, fix education, and give the kids a snow day!

  • Erica

    Hi Jennie, thanks for using your lovely blog to talk about kids and hunger and bring our attention to ways we can help. A similar theme has emerged here in Portland, Oregon as we face a potential teachers’ strike next week. Many of the news stories focus on kids who don’t have a place to go if school isn’t open. Not only that, but these students will likely miss one to two meals each day. About half of our public school student population receives free or reduced-cost meals. (Reduced-cost lunch is 40 cents and breakfast is free, several schools in our district offer free breakfast to all enrolled students). Clearly, we have to re-think what we ask of schools, how we (as a society) can possibly afford and sustain a public school system that does so much more than educate children.

    Here in Oregon, we have an abundance of agricultural resources, a nationally recognized food scene, and a robust food bank: and yet, we have extremely high rates of child hunger and overall food insecurity.

    Maybe it does take extreme circumstances such as snow storms and teacher strikes to remind us of the precarious vulnerability of our neediest citizens.

  • Veronica Gaboury

    Powerful and wonderful as usual. As a teacher I am thankful that you are bringing this to people’s attention for so many reasons. As a mom and human, for so many more. Thank you for using your ‘stage’ for good.

  • Michelle

    I always think of a phrase I heard about right to life people. They should be as worried about children after they are born as they are before they are born.

  • Mary kamerer

    In Charlotte, NC, I occasionally cook and deliver meals for an organization called Hope Cancer Ministries (find on Facebook) which provides hot meals to indigent folks who are suffering with cancer. Often, it’s a young mother with two children dying of colon cancer who cannot cook for herself, or an elderly man who lives alone and cannit cook.

  • Veronica Georges

    Bravo! for bringing this very important issue into the light of day. . . it’s shameful that our children and families go hungry while we turn our backs. . .keep telling the truth.

  • Sirena

    I really enjoyed this, Jennie, and I think it takes courage to wade into the waters of political discussions but when your passions are such that you can’t keep it in, you gotta put it on the page! A good read, good food for thought.

  • Lisa

    Jennie – The government has thrown billions of dollars at this problem – and the statistics from the left and the right show that poverty levels are the same or worse. I think the best thing we can do – is what you did. Don’t just throw money at it – or vote for those who will throw others people’s noney at it – work to be the change. People opening their hearts and homes is the only way poverty will truly end… the government will never “solve” this problem. But, we must!!

  • Trisha Brigham

    Dear Jennie,
    Your post speaks directly to my heart. Six years ago I moved to Whidbey Island in Washington. It was a huge move leaving my friends and family after 30 years in Oregon. As a retired teacher I was trying to find my place on this beautiful island north of Seattle. I stumbled on an opportunity to volunteer for Whidbey Island Nourishes (WIN). WIN is a backpack program which provides food to school children and their siblings on the weekend, and we also provide a la carte items for our teens at various sites throughout the south end of the island. I was shocked to discover we had such a hunger problem on this island considering the island is home to many affluent people. WIN has been a part of my life for over 5 years now. I am committed to working and standing up for our children. The blessing in return is I now have so many wonderful people in my life, and because of WIN I have found my place on the island. We (the volunteers) always say “it’s a WIN-WIN.” It’s so true! I have included a link to our website which explains our program. Over the years we have grown immensely, receiving generous donations from our community, grants, and many organizations visit us to see how our program is run. I hope this will inspire you to continue to share what you’ve learned from your North Carolina visit and the many other programs all over the the nation. Thanks for sharing your well written thoughts on this blog.

    One more note: Thursday an envelope was delivered to our kitchen while the volunteers were preparing the weekend backpack lunches. As we opened the envelope from the elementary school an avalanche of valentines poured out and onto the table! A beautiful display and what an absolute treat to read all the valentine messages from the children thanking us for their lunches. The children…it is why we all show up every week!

  • Jenn J.

    Thank you for sharing resources! I’m going to look into my local chapters to begin helping out. The issue may be complex but there are simple strides we can all make as individuals, which will make a larger impact.

  • Eileen

    Ok…i just have to put in my two cents here! I’m a conservative pro-life woman. I’m not uninterested in chidlren as some imply, nor is anyone else i know who believes as i do. We believe in people being responsible. The charities you mention are wonderful, as are all the wonderful things people are saying they’re doing to help. As for the farm bill…there’s lots good and bad about it. My understanding is 80% of the spending is food stamp related. I worked for washington state welfare during the time boeing laid off tens of thousands in seattle area. We worked very hard to help everyone but were unbelievably overwhelmed by the numbers. Most people getting help truly needed it, but, of course, some tried to play the system. It would be wonderful if there were no fraud in any government program, thus having the money needed to help those who do need it. I don’t know the solutions to all of this. We aren’t promised a quality life…it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Would be wonderful to teach those getting assistance how to choose good foods, grow their own if possible…the old teach a person to fish idea. As i said, i don’t know the answers, but just throwng money at the problem doesn’t seem to have worked really well in 50 years of the war on poverty.

  • Susan P

    I agree with Eileen on so many counts. Until we address the personal responsibility and fraud that is rampant with so many of these prgrams the problems will never be solved. My daughter has worked for a non-profit for eight years. The organization provides a food pantry, housing assistance, clothing assistance, child-care assistance and a special food pantry that is for HIV positive clients. I can’t tell you the number of times that clients have come in for their assistance with all of the latest ipods/gaming devices/phones/computers/ipads. I can tell you this happens more times than not. It enraged me to sit at the reception desk as a volunteer and witness this while my daughter would put in 60 hour work weeks as a social worker and could afford none of these luxuries. I had to stop working there as it made me ill. Just throwing money at the problem is not the answer. We must get back to taking the responsibiity of providing for our own and taking care of those truly in need. As a taxpayer I am sick of taking care of other people’s lifestyle.

  • Faro

    I see. People are in need because they haven’t been responsible. The government, laws, and economy play no part in that. Just what qualifies someone as truly in need? How telling that your focus is on those you believe worked the system – not those who needed, benefited and were grateful for assistance. This is a red herring and takes focus away from the problem Jennie wrote about. True acts of charity do not come with strings attached.
    “I’m not uninterested in children” and “We aren’t promised a quality of life” seem to contradict each other. Michelle is right: “They should be as worried about children after they are born as they are before they are born.”

  • Chrik

    I agree with Ellen. Statistics have consistently proven that the one thing promoting poverty is having children out of wedlock. I do believe there should be a safety net for those truly in need, but throwing billions of dollars at programs has not changed the poverty level at all-in fact it was declining on its own until the ‘War of Povery’, whereupon it flatlined and has only gone up in the past few years. Think about it: the bureaucrats manning these programs need them to fail in order to get more money. Government agencies spawn more bureaucracy and the only ones who benefit are the government workers. The only thing government can truly do is encourage people to wait until marriage to have chidren. Children of married parents do better in every area-even when compared to children of parents who live together but are not married. Charities and organizations are wonderful as well. As for the old ‘pro life until fetus is born’ mantra, it is patently false, proven so by the many non-profit organizations that exist to take care of poor and needy children. As for minimum wage laws, they have been proven to indiscriminately make things worse for those living below the poverty line. Using your head to think through the longterm results of government policies will usua;lly lead to better outcomes than instituting government policies based on emotion.

    JP’s Note: The “pro-life until fetus is born” mantra is not a falsehood. The same aggressively conservative politicians, and their constituents, who are pro-life, are also fighting for less government involvement (lower taxes, less social programs). Marriage is also not a safety net. My first daughter was born before my husband and I got married, and I’m pretty confident she’s on a good solid path. And please don’t say I’m the exception to the rule. I know many happy, healthy families where there is only one parent, or the parents aren’t married.

  • Eileen

    All people on welfare aren’t irresponsible…far from it. Our office went from helping 300 people a month, to ten times that. The majority needed help and we were happy to do all we could to help them. Almost every client i worked with was hardworking and wanted desperately to get back to that. Welfare was never meant to be a way of life, however, so it would be good to find ways to help people get off of it…for their own sakes! An analogy is my trying to learn chess as a young girl. My friend thought she was helping me by letting me win…all that did was discourage me as I was not really learning to play. It also made me mad and I stopped playing until I was older. I never learned or worked as hard to get grades in a pass/fail class as the ones where my teachers told me they knew I was capable of much more. As a former teacher, I saw that in my students, too. They liked being encouraged to do better.

  • Nancy Shampo

    Hi Jennie, I have a question at the program called Backpack Buddies in Raleigh, NC. what kinds of things do they send home with the children?

    I am asking because I know someone who may be interested in doing something like this and he has an organization that might do it.


  • 58Teresa
    they also have links to other groups on this site, it is who WIC is run through, so even if you don’t like the religion, you may embrace the goodness. And if you can’t contribute $ (and even if you can) remember volunteering your time is sometimes even more important.

    Want to also say – thank you – for thinking “globally” and acting locally.