EDITORIAL: Who will feed the hungry?

IT’S ANYBODY’S GUESS what images will endure as icons of this pandemic. If, for a moment, you can bear to focus on which photographs already stand out, surely medical caregivers at work rank among the most wrenching. But other photos, though they seldom convey the emotion of mortal struggles, also lodge in our memories.

Think of the metaphors: empty streets, onlookers socially distancing as they cheer first responders, the faces of isolation, truck trailers pressed into service as morgues, people refusing/ignoring/forgetting to wear masks. Now add to the list the lines of cars.

Some are lined up so the occupants can be tested for the coronavirus. Others await whatever food is offered. The lines for virus tests were the first to grab headlines because they accompanied stories on the testing scandals. And then came the longer lines that stretched for miles, with drivers inching sedans, SUVs or pickups toward free food distribution sites. The first reports came from the South and a few cities in the Midwest. Then New Jersey. They were distant enough to encourage a false sense of security here. But this week the line formed at the entrance to the Columbia County Fairgrounds in the Village of Chatham.

People reportedly began arriving a half hour early for food being distributed at no charge by joint effort of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany and the food pantries of Chatham, Ghent and Valatie. A story and photo by David Lee appear on our website news page.

By one estimate over 300 vehicles arrived for the distribution. Local volunteers came from the Chatham Village Board, the Ghent and Chatham town boards, Chatham firefighters and the list goes on, adding up to roughly 50 people wearing masks. They loaded each vehicle with at least two boxes of food—canned goods, milk, meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables in amounts that varied by the number of people in need.

Everyone who arrived during the two-hour distribution received the food boxes; 36,000 pounds of food in all. What little was left went to the Ichabod Crane and Chatham School District food programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines the term Food Insecure as households that over the last 12 months “were at times unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food.” USDA determines whether someone is food insecure by asking whether that person worries where money for the next meal will come from and whether children in the house have gone without eating for a day because there wasn’t any money to pay for it.

Food insecurity statistics in the county are not news. They are collected by government and non-profit organizations and overall, the need has grown rapidly since mid-March. The need is apparent to most food pantries, too, although numbers vary these days because people at high risk of contracting Covid-19 may be reluctant to seek help in any space they believe is too small to make social distancing possible.

This week’s line of food insecure motorists marks a first of its kind in this county. It won’t be the last. All of us who live here can be thankful that it went smoothly, that supplies were ample, that our neighbors stepped up and made it happen. But the lines will get longer, straining available resources.

One response to the food insecurity problem successfully pursued by Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19th) is called the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, funding which is now available for small- and medium-sized farms and farm producers harmed by the pandemic. There are nearly 5,000 small farms in his large, rural 19th District, which includes all of Columbia County. His office announced this week that the USDA is opening Coronavirus Food Assistance Program applications now through August 28, 2020. More is at his official website delgado.house.gov.

Whether this will help county residents facing food insecurity remains to be seen. But if we have fewer farms because of the ongoing disruptions from the virus, it cannot be good news for our food supply.

Hundreds of county residents chose to line up for food generously supplied by strangers and loaded into their cars by neighbors. The image is heartwarming, yes; and bleak. Who in the White House is in charge of ensuring Americans don’t go hungry? Who in the administration understands that people don’t line up like this for food unless their lives depend on it?

Motorists began to get in line for a free food distribution at the fairgrounds at 9:30 a.m. At its peak, the line stretched out nearly to Route 66. Photo by David Lee

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