‘Heat or Eat’ a reality for many in region

Sue Guinn Legg • Feb 21, 2013 at 9:23 AM

Food relief agencies call it the “Heat or Eat” season, winter months when high heating costs present many low-income seniors and families with a painful conundrum: “Do I pay the heat bill or do I buy groceries?” With another month of winter left to weather, it’s an excellent time to join in the local fight against hunger.

In its winter 2013 newsletter, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee reports the number of households in the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee that receive supplemental food assistance from community-based pantries and feeding agencies has increased 52 percent since 2007. Last year, an average of 38,000 people in the region received monthly assistance with food from Second Harvest’s partner agencies and last month the number jumped to 39,000, the highest in the food bank’s 26-year history.

Regional child hunger statistics are even more alarming, with more than one in three children in the three poorest counties of Northeast Tennessee living in poverty and one in every five children in the other five counties living in poverty. In Hancock County, which continues to rank among the most poverty-stricken counties in the state, 42 percent of children live in poverty. Government surveys show 22 percent of Hancock County children are “food insecure” or at times living without enough to eat.

In response, the regional food bank’s distribution hit a record 8.5 million pounds of food in 2012. Its Food for Kids take- home food backpack program for chronically hungry school children has grown by a whopping 182 percent since 2007. And still, the food bank is working to bridge the gap between the 39,000 local residents served monthly by its partner agencies and the nearly 76,000 local residents the government identifies as food insecure.

The foods bank’s pending move to its new and larger warehouse in Kingsport will allow it to expand its programs and help bridge that gap. But first, Second Harvest must raise another $900,000 toward the $1.3 million it needs to renovate the building. And meanwhile, another even larger challenge is looming on the horizon for food banks and feeding agencies nationwide.

Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest of Northeast Tennessee and a member of the Feeding America Network’s Legislative Committee, said Wednesday the committee members have been notified the federal budget cuts set to kick in March 1 will impact U.S. Department of Agriculture food commodities that supply the food bank as well as the federal WIC program that provides infant formula and baby food to low-income mothers with infants and young children.

“People are wondering what’s going to happen. They feel helpless and they don’t know what they can do to help,” Chafin said. “They can help by donating their time. They can conduct a food drive for the food bank. They can let us bring one of our summer food school buses with our Lunch Express logos on them to their location and they can conduct a food drive to fill the bus. Or they can make a monetary donation.”

The March 1 national budget sequestration deadline also marks the beginning of the annual Feinstein Food Challenge that makes the months of March and April an even more opportune time to help the food bank and other local hunger fighting agencies.

Conducted every year for the past 15 years by the New Jersey-based Feinstein Foundation, the $1 million food challenge provides a proportional match for every donation of $1 or one pound of food made to participating hunger relief agencies between March 1 and April 30. While it is not a dollar for dollar match, the challenge has potential to add thousands of dollars to the budgets of local hunger relief agencies. And beyond that, the challenge encourages more people in the communities agencies serve to become involved in the fight against hunger in their area.

For those who wish to help the food bank, the number to call for information is 477-4053. More information about Second Harvest initiatives and opportunities to help are also available online at www.netfoodbank.org. Or donations may be made by mail to Second Harvest Food Bank, 127 Dillon Court, Gray, TN 37615, or dropped off at the food bank Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Good Samaritan Ministries is also taking part in this year’s Feinstein Challenge and, like the food bank, is reminding its supporters that “Every day, families in our area make the choice between shelter, heat or food.” Melissa Hoefel, Good Sam’s administrative assistant, said food donations to Good Samaritan and monetary gifts the ministry earmarked for food “will help make that choice a little easier.”

To help the ministry earn a Feinstein cash match of $250 to $35,000 for hunger relief in the local community, Hoefel suggests “encouraging your church, community organization, business or school to host a food drive” for Good Samaritan.

“Spread the word” and “make sure you let people know every food item they donate represents $1 per item” toward a Feinstein match, she said.

For more information about how to help, call Good Samaritan at 928-1958 or visit goodsamjc.org. Donations earmarked for food may be made at the website or by mail to Good Samaritan Ministries, P.O. Box 2441, Johnson City, TN 37605-2441, or dropped off at the ministry at 100 N. Roan St., Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

If there is a need or a project in your neighborhood the Good Neighbor column can assist with, contact Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com, P.O. Box 1717, Johnson City, TN 37605 1717 or 929-3111, ext. 335.

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