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COMMENTARY: As the holidays approach, support your local food bank

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment is down to 4.1 percent — about as near to full employment as it gets. And according to the Pew Research Center, the overall national poverty rate dipped to 12.7 percent last year, almost to its pre-Great Recession level.

But things are never as sunny as suggested by aggregated statistics.

In fact, Pew reports that the share of the population in severe poverty — defined by the Census Bureau as those with family or individual incomes below half of their poverty threshold — actually reached its highest point in at least 20 years.

Food pantries across the nation are feeling it.

“Last week, I had a grandmother with eight people in her family in here. She had a small, handful of change in her pocket and she told me that was all they had for the week,” said Linda Fore, director of Heaven’s Bounty Food Ministry in southeastern Tennessee. “You try to feed eight people with just the change in your hand and see what you think of the poverty level.”

The Feeding America network, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, notes on its website that, “Many rural and farm communities — the very places where crops are grown to feed the world — face hunger. It seems impossible, but in lands of plenty, hunger pains can be the sharpest.”

Feeding America calculates that 2.7 million rural households face hunger, and 86 percent of the counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity are rural. Plus, the South continues to have the nation’s highest rural family poverty rate.

“We have quite a few people who, the food they get from us is all they get,” Fore told me on a Sunday, one of the four days the pantry is open per week to anyone who can find a way to get there. “We are located in what’s considered a food desert; there isn’t a grocery store within at least a five-mile radius. I think the national average is 10 percent of people without a car, and I know our average is quite a bit higher than that. Plus, we are seeing two to four new families every day, because people are newly out of work. They say the economy is supposed to be recovering, but in the rural areas, you can’t tell.”

Not that food insecurity is limited to any region or type of community. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 41 million people face hunger in the United States today — including nearly 13 million children and more than 5 million seniors.

This is why, as we head into winter, it’s so vitally important to support your local food bank and pantry or even national organizations like Feeding America well in advance of the holidays.

“You don’t go to the grocery store the night before to buy your food for Thanksgiving, and it’s very hard for us to help our clients have a Thanksgiving dinner when the food comes in one or two days before,” Fore said. “And even if we got money [two days before Thanksgiving] to buy turkeys and extra potatoes, we wouldn’t have time to get the food in, separated and ready to distribute in time to get the baskets into families’ hands.”

Fore said she’s been collecting frozen pies for Thanksgiving since August but is feeling grim about her ability to collect turkeys for the estimated 200 families who will be turning to Heaven’s Bounty for a Thanksgiving meal — because people don’t think about their local food pantry until the days before holidays.

“No one has done a food drive for us, so I doubt I’ll be able to have Thanksgiving baskets for families this year, but we could still give out non-perishables and other items if the donations start coming in — but they’d have to start coming in now,” Fore said.

With two weeks left until our national day of eating, please make some room in your meal budget to donate food or cash.

Local is always best, but Heaven’s Bounty would welcome your donations at P.O. Box 1361, Collegedale, TN 37315, and so would Feeding America at feedingamerica.org. This is one food splurge that will be kind to others and to your own waistline.

Contact Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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