ALBANY, Ga. -- People are going hungry. Not just in Africa, Asia or Latin America, but here in the United States and Southwest Georgia. Some of them could be your neighbors.
Because of state and federal programs, most aren't starving -- people don't see the skeletal limbs and distended bellies common in other lands. Still, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2006 through 2008 a staggering 15 percent of Americans and 14.2 percent of Georgians experienced "low food security," defined as insufficient food access for an active, healthy life. Those figures are up nearly 30 percent since 2006.
Inadequate income is the root cause of most hunger in America and Tony Hall, manager of the Albany branch of Second Harvest food bank, sees the problem getting worse.
"Over the past several years, the area has lost some high-paying companies, like Cooper Tire, Merck and Bobs Candy," Hall said. "Unemployment has run out and the jobs aren't there."
Hall said that people who experience low food security are faced with difficult choices -- between rent, gasoline or other necessities and the food they need. The elderly may choose utilities that keep them warm or medicine to keep them alive. A 2007 study by Meals on Wheels indicated that as many as 6 million seniors are going hungry.
The person most likely to be hungry may be a single, working mother, according to a report by the Washington Post. For the children of low-income parents, federal programs provide free meals at school, but the mothers may choose rent, health care or new shoes for her kids and go hungry herself.
Incredibly, one in four American children live in food-insecure homes, according to the Washington Post article. A hungry child has difficulty learning. A child who can't learn drops out of school. A person without an education can't get a good job. Finally, that individual may then be a drag on society or even turn to crime and be arrested, costing taxpayers $40,000 a year or more to sit in prison.
The Albany food bank serves Turner, Worth, Crisp, Sumpter, Lee, Terrell, Calhoun, Early and Dougherty counties. On a recent tour of Second Harvest on Clark Avenue in Albany, Hall pulled a can of string beans from an open box of donated or "reclaimed" food.
"All this has been checked," he said, gesturing to the 20 or so boxes on the warehouse floor. "The dates are good. There's no rust or out-of-shape cans. It can all be picked up for delivery."
Reclaimed food arrives at the warehouse three or four times a week from retail markets such as Publix, Big Lots, Winn-Dixie and others, Hall said. The stores may have an unanticipated surplus of the product, or it may be close to expiration. Some of the food comes from independent food drives initiated by local organizations.
When the food is declared safe by Second Harvest, its ready to be picked up by the "agencies" -- certified churches or nonprofit organizations. From there, the food is distributed to individual families. Each agency pays a "shared maintenance fee" of 19 cents per pound to defray the food bank's operating costs. Other than the maintenance fee, Second Harvest is supported entirely by corporate and individual donations.
Hall says the Albany warehouse provides 8,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds of food to agencies each day. Second Harvest of South Georgia -- which includes the 30 counties in and around Albany, Thomasville, Douglas and Valdosta -- delivered 14 million pounds of food to agencies in 2010, and is on track for 16 million this year. When asked if that would be sufficient, Hall said no.
Love Thy Neighbor Inc. is one of the agencies served by Second Harvest food bank in Albany, although it obtains its food in other ways as well. Conceived eight years ago by Avalon United Methodist Church in Albany, it's there to help local families meet their needs for food and clothing, said Art Shoemaker, 71.
Shoemaker and six volunteers operate the facility three days each week. For up to two hours on each of those days, as many as 33 families will receive a "bag of groceries," a loaf of bread and rolls, and fresh produce in season, Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker also represents the Society of St. Andrew, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reclaiming or "gleaning" the up to 20 percent of America's food crops normally wasted, either because they're missed by mechanical harvesting or because they're not commercially marketable.
When asked how he had come to be the person operating Love Thy Neighbor, Shoemaker wasn't sure.
"I still ain't figured that out, he said, smiling. "We (the congregation of Avalon Methodist) were talking about it and I said I'd help. All of a sudden I was in charge."
To qualify for assistance, recipients must fill out a form and certify their income doesn't exceed a certain maximum. A family of five can receive no more than $645 weekly.
For information about hunger in Southwest Georgia and how to fight it, call Second Harvest of South Georgia at (229) 244-2678.