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Beyond Thanksgiving Day reminder: Feed the hungry

WEST PALM BEACH — Several months ago, I wrote in this column about hunger and the fact that few of us every slow down long enough to notice that we are surrounded by it.

The good news, as we approach Thanksgiving Day, is that there are dozens of community organizations, churches and businesses feeding tens of thousands of people.

The bad news is that the problem seems as intractable as, if not worse than, it was several months ago. Take Audrey’s Soup Kitchen at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church near downtown West Palm Beach. When I wrote in July, the soup kitchen was providing about 200 meals every Thursday to needy men, women and children. As of last week that number was up over 300, according to Beverly Romear-Doukwah, who runs the operation.

That’s only a sliver of the problem, say those involved in the hunger fight. How bad is it? Enough that about one in seven people in the county does not know the source of their next meal. Enough that up to one in four children in the county goes hungry daily. And enough that“food insecurity” is on the rise among our seniors; to the point many are forced to juggle the costs of food and medication.

And then there’s this: a 90-year-old man in Fort Lauderdale arrested — twice — recently for handing out food without a permit. That someone is willing to risk arrest to feed the homeless is worth noting only because it is an indication that there is no shortage of folks trying to address the issue of hunger — especially around Thanksgiving.

On Wednesday, for example, Florida Power & Light volunteers packed about 10,000 plastic bags for the Palm Beach County Food Bank.“Children are going to school hungry. Parents must decide whether to pay rent or buy food. This food will make a huge difference,” Melissa Sullivan, director of advancement for the food bank, told The Palm Beach Post’s Bill Dipaolo.

The Urban League of Palm Beach County, on Saturday morning, once again handed out hundreds of turkeys and other food at its Australian Avenue headquarters to poor families who might not otherwise have a Thanksgiving meal. And after several weeks of gathering tons of nonperishable food items, WPTV-NewsChannel 5 will this week wrap up its annual Bill Brooks Food for Families Drive.

According to Feeding South Florida, which distributes about 40 million pounds of food annually to more than 330 partner agencies from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys, the need is ever-growing. The organization, part of the national network Feeding America, has a plan to increase its services by about 20 percent per year until it’s at about 70 million pounds of food annually. It hopes to get there in a few years.

“It’s a challenge to try to help people understand that that’s where our biggest need is,” Paco Velez, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said in May.

It’s important to note that while the“Great Recession” has ended, food insecurity rates remain high. For example, hunger rates for people in their 60s rose even more from 2005 to 2012 than for the very elderly, according to a study published in May by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. Retirees will sooner cut their food budget than forego other fixed costs, such as health care or housing.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the working poor remains swollen, even as the unemployment rate continues to edge downward. That’s because the rate may reflect as much people leaving the job market as those getting jobs. And too many of those jobs still are part-time and low-wage, leaving workers having to apply for public assistance — or worse, go hungry.

We are, of course, confronted with the annual irony of all this as we prepare to stuff ourselves in gluttonous delight on turkey, ham, green beans, Momma Sophie’s sweet potato pie and more. How is it that in the richest nation on the planet, that one in six Americans — roughly 49 million — is unsure where his or her next meal is coming from? How can it be that more than half of public school kids in Palm Beach County are getting free or reduced-price lunch — which may be their only meal of the day?

“There is a real need out there, and we have to address it,” says Rev. Canon Winston Joseph, pastor at St. Patrick’s Episcopal.“The real question for us here (at St. Patrick’s) is, what happens after Thanksgiving.”

What, indeed.

Rick Christie writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: rick_christie@pbpost.com.

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