The following was originally published at Bread for the World and written by By Alyssa Casey.
I love the work I do as a Bread staffer in Washington, D.C., but my roots will always be in northern Illinois. I grew up in Antioch, Ill., a small town where farmlands and suburban neighborhoods merge into one. Antioch is also where I first encountered hunger through service work at my church and local food pantry.
During a visit home to Antioch a few weeks ago, I accompanied my mother one night to a food pantry at Open Arms Mission. I saw many faces of hunger walk through the door. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to talk with Marytherese Ambacher, the director of Open Arms Mission. She confirmed what I saw firsthand—that there is no one face of hunger.
“We see a lot of men in their 50s and 60s, a lot of tradespeople,” she explained. Many tradespeople who work seasonal jobs get laid off during the slow months. While some are able to find another temporary job to fill the gap, others turn to the local food pantry while they continue their job search.
When I asked about SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Ambacher said many of the people coming to the food pantry receive SNAP, but the benefits they receive aren’t enough to get their family through the month. “Most people don’t come every week,” but come to fill the gap when their SNAP benefits run out.
Open Arms allows clients to come in once per week, and in one visit they receive up to two days’ worth of food based on family size. The majority of these individuals and families rely on SNAP in addition to the food pantry. “That’s what Congress doesn’t get. They think we can feed these people but we only give them 2 days’ worth of food a week,” Ambacher said.
At Bread for the World, we know that while these churches and charities are immensely important, federal programs provide nearly 20 times the amount of food assistance as private sources.
Open Arms also coordinates with local schools to close the hunger gap during weekends and summers. The weekend backpack program provides a backpack with food on Fridays for some of the children who receive free- and reduced-price lunch during the week.
“We ran a summer camp for two years,” Ambacher said, “but we had more volunteers than we had kids.” Most summer feeding programs across the country require students to come to a specific site and finish the meal on site. Parents in Northern Lake County, which includes suburban and rural communities, find it difficult to get their children to the site because they are at work during the day.
Feeding students during the summer can be difficult. For every seven children who receive free- or reduced-price lunch, only one also receives food assistance during summer months. That’s why Bread for the World is campaigning this year to close this gap and expand access to summer meals for children at risk of hunger.
Private charities like Open Arms are invaluable partners in the fight against hunger, but they can’t do it alone. Strengthening federal nutrition programs like SNAP and school and summer meals would be a huge step toward ending hunger in the United States.
Bread for the World urges Congress to strengthen child nutrition programs, particularly the summer meals program, and encourages everyone to call (800/826-3688) or email your members of Congress today.
Alyssa Casey is a government relations coordinator at Bread for the World.