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By KYLE HENCE
NEWPORT — There’s a full plate in front of me. I’m 5 years old. I’m picking at peas with my fork as I peer up — my mother hovering over me. “Remember the starving children in Africa!” she beseeches. It’s a distant concern become cliché. However, what was once abstract and far away is today far more immediate. Starvation still ravages Africa, but now the hungry are our neighbors.
“It is hidden in a lot of ways; it could be your next-door neighbor and they are really struggling and you wouldn’t know it,” said Marilyn Warren, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.
Last year, the Center served more than 60,000 meals to individuals and families from throughout Newport County. Warren estimated that all six Newport emergency food pantries and agencies served more than 200,000 meals — 200,000 meals! — to the needy who come from as far away as Tiverton, hungry. These numbers are growing into what Warren called a “stark reality.” This, in the city of magnificent mansions, summer home of super yachts and on an island with a thriving defense economy.
“We have seen a 20 percent increase monthly, but that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Warren said.
During Thanksgiving weekend, the Center served 5,910 meals. From Christmas through New Year’s, it served another 7,214.
Down the street on Bowen’s Wharf, the Seaman’s Church Institute opened its doors Thanksgiving Day and Christmas as it does every year. The Comfort family — mother Peggy, father Lyn and daughter Kim — have prepared holiday meals at the waterfront charity the past two years. I asked Kim Comfort if the numbers were up this year. “Oh my God, almost double,” she replied.
The King Center is one of about 250 agency programs that are part of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s statewide network (pdf). With a concentration of six programs in the City-by-the-Sea, if you are hungry in Newport County — Jamestown, Little Compton, Middletown, Portsmouth, Tiverton and Newport — you are likely to turn to one of the following food pantries or meal sites: the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, The Salvation Army, East Bay Community Action, St. Joseph’s Church, Community Baptist Church and the Newport Residents Council on York Street in Newport Heights.
In Rhode Island, there are 181,000 people living in households with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s 2011 Status Report on Hunger (pdf). These are Rhode Island’s poor. They also are our neighbors and co-workers, and the reality is that during the coming year they, and their children, will often go without a meal.
What was once known more harshly as “hunger” is now dubbed “food insecurity.” In Rhode Island, those missing meals or at risk of doing so rose from 10.7 percent in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2010. During the past four years, the number of people served at emergency food pantries increased by 58 percent, and today these programs serve 60,000 meals each month across the state.
Facilities are working ever harder to keep up with the growing need. Their goal: to reduce what they call “the meal gap.” In 2011, despite all state, federal and private assistance, the meal gap in Rhode Island was 34 million meals.
“How do we reach these people and say it’s OK to come?” This, Warren said, is the challenge she and her colleagues in Newport and across Rhode Island are facing as the meal gap grows. It’s a daunting one.
Local resident Jennifer Pine is a mother of three, ages 2, 4 and 9. Her husband, Sgt. Joe Pine, a Newport native, has served 16 years in the Rhode Island National Guard and just re-upped for another six. He also works full time as a civilian technician with the Army. Health issues have prevented Jennifer from working. Financially strapped with only one income and growing health-care costs, the family turned to the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly called food stamps — for assistance.
“You would think that a military family would be able to get food assistance,” she said. But through repeated appeals over two years, the Pine family has been denied.
One day about a year ago, she accompanied her disabled aunt to the King Center food pantry. Every month since she has counted on the agency to avoid skipping meals. Three bags of groceries picked from the pantry shelves provide a week’s worth of meals for the Pine family.
“Thank God for the food pantry. I had no idea it was here.” She said. “We would be in big trouble if it wasn’t for them. They’ve been so good to us.”
According to the latest census data, more than 47 million Americans live in poverty. As this number grows, so does the U.S. hunger problem — a tragic largely hidden reality across this country. Our system, what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” while creating the world’s most powerful nation, militarily, is failing to adequately feed millions of its own. While more people than ever eat better than kings of old, there are far too many who eat like paupers.
Early last year, the state Senate established a new Defense Economy Planning Commission. Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-District 13, Jamestown and Newport, laid out the stakes: “The defense industry is critical to our state’s economy. Is has an economic impact of $1.75 billion and employs more than 16,000 people in the state. On Aquidneck Island alone, 11,000 people, both military and civilian, are employed by the defense industry, with an annual payroll of more than $900 million.”
The stark reality is that despite all of Aquidneck Island’s weapon systems wizardry and hundreds of millions of defense dollars flowing into our local economy, there are growing numbers of hungry, our neighbors, veterans, and even our local servicemen and women and their families, turning to Marilyn Warren and volunteers like the Comforts who serve real needs in these dire and difficult times.
With this crisis growing, can there be any doubt we must begin to divert the money spent on fighting foreign wars, and re-examine our priorities? These dollars would be better spent building a truly sustaining and restorative local economy that, as one goal, focuses on our healthy agriculture sector, turning, for example, food waste into the “black gold” of compost.
That way we can help turn hunger, at least its current scale, into a distant memory.
Hunger isn’t far away across an ocean in an unknown land. It’s just down the street, around the corner. So let us shift our money now. The food will follow. As will real security and a different sort of thriving economy.
Middletown resident Kyle Hence is an ecoRI News contributor.