As many of us prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner, it’s worth thinking about neighbors who won’t be so lucky.
There are more of them than usual.
In fact, food bank directors across Kentucky say there are more of them than they’ve ever seen before.
A report last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of American households struggling to feed themselves rose by 4 million in 2008, to a total of 17 million.
The report estimated that one in seven U.S. households — 49 million Americans — were “food insecure” (meaning without enough food) at times last year. It was the highest rate since the study began in 1995, and it included 506,000 families with children.
The numbers were based on a scientific survey of 44,000 households, including 1,881 in Kentucky.
When viewed state by state, food insecurity among Kentucky households was a little above the average, at 12.6 percent, with 4.4 percent of households considered “very insecure.” Kentucky’s numbers have been steady in recent years, although they’re much higher than they were in the late 1990s.
“We’re seeing a lot of folks who have never accessed food assistance before,” said Marian Guinn, chief executive of God’s Pantry, which operates a food bank in Lexington and supplies food to banks in 50 counties.
God’s Pantry and other Kentucky food banks report that demand is up about 30 percent from last year. October was God’s Pantry’s biggest month ever, with 2,400 families served locally.
Food bank directors say many families seeking assistance still have someone employed, but they have seen hours, pay or benefits cut. Others have been laid off or have seen contract work disappear; their unemployment benefits have run out, or they’re waiting for them to start.
“We have had the most people this year that we’ve ever had,” said Jerry Workman, volunteer director of the 30-year-old Berea Community Food Bank.
“Since demand is going up, it’s putting a strain on the food bank, so we’re asking people to be especially generous this season,” said Annette Ball of the Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville, which has served a 13-county area since 1971.
“What we’re seeing are persons who haven’t been to a food pantry in a very long time,” said Debbie Long, director of God’s Food Pantry in Somerset. “For us, trying to keep up with the demand is very difficult.”
Debbie Amburgey, coordinator of God’s Pantry-East in Prestonsburg, which distributes food to 73 food banks in 12 southeastern Kentucky counties, said she expects the need to increase as the holidays approach. Relatives come home, and hard-pressed families use some of their food money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.
“It’s pretty serious,” said Thelma Willis, director of Helping Hands Food Pantry in Corbin. “There’s a lot of people laid off around here, and we’re having more elderly come in than usual.”
How can you help? Donating to your local food bank is an obvious answer. Beyond charity, though, there’s a growing movement to rebuild Kentucky’s capacity for community agriculture, especially in poor areas where quality of food is as big a problem as quantity.
One such group is a Lexington non-profit called Seedleaf. It works with neighborhoods to start community gardens and teach people how to grow, cook and preserve nutritious food. For more information, go to www.seedleaf.org.
Another effort is the Lexington Urban Gleaning Network, which collects leftover food from farmers, gardeners and fruit-tree owners and distributes it through God’s Pantry. For more information, e-mail John Walker at email@example.com.
So as you sit down to your turkey, consider donating food, money or time to an organization that’s trying to meet Kentuckians’ immediate needs — or better prepare them to feed themselves.