By Tamara Carrera

Tamara Carrera

When the Community Assistance Center (CAC) opened its doors in 1987 to help neighbors in need, it had a 2×8-foot food closet serving two to 10 families per day. I am sure the need was much greater, but our ability to help was very limited. Since then, that closet has grown to 2,000-square-feet and serves 80 to 100 families per day.

Today, we are much closer to understanding the degree of hunger in our community, but our capacity to serve still doesn’t meet the demand.

Hunger is primarily a result of poverty, and poverty is becoming more evident, even in prosperous American suburbs today. The 2008 economic slump added many households to the roster of the poor.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one in six Americans struggle with hunger, and 16.7 million children younger than 18 in the United States live in households that are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food to develop properly.

Although food insecurity is harmful to any individual, it is particularly so to children, due to their increased vulnerability and its potential for long-term consequences.

According to Feed America, “Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing a good foundation that has implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that critical foundation. Hunger prevents kids from reaching their full potential. It’s an epidemic that’s threatening America’s future.”

Households with limited resources utilize a variety of methods to help meet their food needs. Some participate in one or more of the federal food and nutritional assistance programs or obtain food from emergency food providers in their communities, such as CAC, to supplement the food they purchase.

Federal programs include: the Women Infant and Children’s (WIC) program; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program; and finally the National School Lunch Program, where free or reduced-price lunches are made available to low-income students.

In Sandy Springs, 55 percent of public school students qualify for the National School Lunch Program, and in the Dunwoody middle and high schools, 32 percent of students qualify. Clearly, poverty is more present in the two cities that CAC serves than one might realize.

How has this community responded to hunger in its midst? It has responded with compassion and generosity. CAC’s food pantry is stocked daily by donations from congregations, businesses, civic organizations and many generous neighbors, who make sharing their food a regular exercise.

The pantry is further supplied by Second Helpings, a nonprofit effort started by volunteers at Temple Sinai to collect fresh and prepared food from markets, restaurants, schools and caterers, and make it available to local food pantries. With the advent of Second Helpings, CAC was able to increase its food distribution from once a month to once a week, and the nutritious quality of the food is a lot better.

Unfortunately, the current level of giving does not meet the daily needs for food for hungry neighbors. There is a need for more involvement from all, for additional food drives at the neighborhood level, from business and civic organizations, and a personal commitment to sharing a portion of our food budget with those less fortunate and not able to provide for their families.

Never is the reality of food insecurity more pronounced than in the summer, when children who get free meals at school are home and parents struggle to provide enough food to feed them.

CAC started its summer lunch program two years ago to help alleviate this problem. Donors pack bags with five, easy-to-prepare lunches and snacks that older children can prepare themselves while parents work. Donations to this program at this time are most welcome.

And to help raise awareness of hunger in our community, CAC will have its first Hunger Awareness Walk at the Food ‘n Fun Festival on Sunday, May 19, at the Morgan Falls Athletic Complex in Sandy Springs. Neighbors are invited to donate food, participate in the walk and the Shopping Cart Parade, and spend an afternoon of fun and games with their children. For more information please visit our website at www.ourcac.org.

Tamara Carrera is CEO/Executive Director of the Community Assistance Center.