COMMENTARY: Hunger Action Month calls for efforts to focus on all hungry islanders

Eric Pryne (Courtesy Photo)

September is Hunger Action Month. Feeding America, a nationwide food-bank network, calls it a time to “spread the word and take action on the hunger crisis” — volunteer, donate, advocate.

At the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, we’ve been spreading the word about hunger — and the debilitating fear of it — for 40 years. That work is far from done.

Last year, the food bank provided groceries to one of every nine Vashon residents. I cite that statistic when I speak to community groups on the food bank’s behalf, and almost invariably folks are surprised so many are in need.

We’ll continue to spread the word about the prevalence and persistence of food insecurity on Vashon, to motivate more islanders to support the food bank by contributing their time, treasure and even their tomatoes.

But recently, food bank staff and board members have come to realize this isn’t the only outreach we need to do.

We also need to do a better job reaching out to a more select group: islanders who sometimes — perhaps often — lack the resources to purchase nutritious food for their families, yet don’t patronize the food bank.

We believe their numbers are significant.

The food bank board has been collecting baseline information lately, mostly to inform a new strategic plan we’re preparing. We’ve mined demographic data. We’ve conducted focus groups with food bank grocery-distribution clients and surveyed both those clients and the parents of children who participated in our popular Picnics in the Park free-lunch program this summer.

That research supports our thesis that for all the efforts of our staff, volunteers and donors, some islanders still worry about going hungry.

Consider this: More than one in every four students at Chautauqua Elementary School qualifies for free or reduced-price school meals, a federal program aimed at families who struggle economically.

And the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that about one in every six Vashon households has an annual income below $25,000 — officially “low income” even for a household of one.

Numbers like these suggest that by providing groceries to just one household in nine, the food bank has some catching up to do.

Food bank clients in our focus groups said they knew people in need who didn’t come to distributions because of transportation problems or conflicts with work hours. They also mentioned two reasons that may be even more powerful.

First, some said they have friends and neighbors who don’t use the food bank because they think they make too much money to qualify, or that others need our groceries more than they do.

Those sentiments may be selfless, but they’re mistaken. You qualify for the food bank’s groceries if you need food and don’t have enough. That’s our only requirement. We don’t turn anyone away.

Focus group participants also told us there’s a stigma associated with using the food bank. Some said acquaintances look at them differently if they mention they get groceries from us. Conversations chill. Relationships wither.

That stigma is so strong that some folks just don’t come, we were told.

That’s troubling, and it isn’t unique to Vashon. This fall, New York City schools began offering free lunches to all students, regardless of family income, because some kids had chosen to go hungry rather than admit they couldn’t afford to pay.

The food bank has tried something similar with Picnics in the Park, conceived as a way to feed lower-income children who otherwise might go without lunch when school isn’t in session. To eliminate any stigma, we offer meals to everyone 18 and under.

That inclusive approach has been well-received.

“You’re leveling the playground for these kids,” one mother told me.

When we asked people we surveyed what we could do to eliminate the stigma associated with other food bank programs, they answered: “Make it more like Picnics.”

We’re pondering how to do that.

In the meantime, know that food bank staff and volunteers respect our clients. Our mission statement says we are to provide food “without judgment.” We take those two words seriously, and clients tell us we’re living up to them.

Finally, if you’re one of those fortunate islanders who doesn’t worry about hunger, consider, during this Hunger Action Month, just how difficult it is for many who need help to make the leap and ask for it.

Our clients are seniors who survive exclusively on Social Security, divorced mothers whose finances have been drained by custody battles, millennials in low-wage service jobs with mountains of student-loan debt.

They all deserve access to healthy food. We believe it’s a fundamental human right.

— Eric Pryne is a member of the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank board and a retired Seattle Times journalist.