BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
On Wednesday, September 18, Rockland County held its third annual Hunger Summit at the Pearl River Hilton, with the hopes of further addressing the growing issues with hunger throughout the county and the rest of the nation. This is one of several events taking place during Rockland’s Hunger Action Month.
The Hunger Summit came at a significant time when Congress had been focusing on a Farm Bill that had the intention of making extensive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). On Thursday, September 19, the House of Representatives moved forward with a Republican plan that would slash $40 billion in the program. It had a final vote of 217-210.
SNAP is a food stamp program in which the recipients are given a benefit card to use at grocery stores, as well as a few farmers markets. Eligibility depends on certain aspects, such as income and household size.
Those who attended the Hunger Summit include individuals from local organizations, such as Meals on Wheels and People to People, several representatives from Rockland County’s Department of Social Services, County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, and Joel Berg, a nationally renowned leader against domestic hunger.
The program opened with a general overview of what has been going on with hunger in Rockland and the rest of the nation. “One in 10 Rocklanders doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Diane Serratore, executive director of People to People. “26 percent of the people who receive food assistance are kids. And, it just seems to me that in one of the richest nations in the world that has enough food, we throw away more food than we eat, and we’ve got kids that go to bed hungry in our country. And, that’s just wrong.”
That aforementioned 26 percent account for the entire nation.
According to statistics provided by Feeding America, a national nonprofit that raises funds for food banks, it is estimated that around 35,000 residents in Rockland County are food insecure, which means they don’t have access to safe and nutritious food that is needed to sustain a healthy life.
There are around 20,000 people who are served by Rockland’s food pantries every month. In 13 communities throughout the county, there are more than 45 food pantries and soup kitchens.
In December 2012, Rockland had more than 43,000 receivers of SNAP, and it’s likely that even more can qualify for the program.
Twenty Nine and 9/10 percent of public school students in Rockland were qualified to be a part of the Free/Reduced Price Lunch Program during the 2011-2012 academic year.
Joel Berg, a native of Monsey, visited the event as the luncheon speaker. He is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, has appeared in three documentaries, and is the author of the well-reviewed book “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?,” and is a graduate of Columbia University.
“We’re the only western industrialized nation on the planet that has this level of problem,” said Berg. “Honestly, there are a lot of good reporters who want to cover this, but in general, the media has not. We need a lot more discussion of this issue, and of the poverty underlying the hunger because that’s why we have the hunger.”
Berg also provided some insight on how the media depict national hunger in the news.
“If you look at the coverage from the late ‘60s, the working assumption was that the reason we have this problem is government is not doing its job, and the logical way for this problem to be solved is for government to fix it,” said Berg. “And now, the media either gives equal play to right wingers who deny this is a problem, or make up stuff about the programs, or take one person out of a 47-million-person program, and falsely imply they’re representative of the program. Or, they will just focus on some celebrities doing something nice.”
What were most shocking were the differences in the level of hunger between Rockland and New York City that Berg revealed.
“When I was growing up in Rockland County, this was seen as a solidly middle-class suburb. And, there was maybe one agency in Rockland County when it was here in the ‘80s. Now, there are more food pantries and soup kitchens per capita in Rockland County than New York City.”