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Published on Thursday, April 27, 2000 in The Oregonian
Hunger Tale Slow Getting To Congress
by David Sarasohn
 
It was the kind of story that electrifies the all-news cable networks: the merger of two national operations with hundreds of affiliates around the country.

That kind of story produces lots of interviews with people in suspenders talking about synergy and brand identification, and a few interviews with people with less expensive suits complaining about market dominance and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Except these two merger partners were national hunger operations.

Everybody figures there's enough of that market to go around.

America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based alliance of food banks (including the Oregon Food Bank) is merging with Food Chain, a Kansas City-centered operation specializing in picking up and quickly delivering surplus prepared foods.

Think of it as a food search engine bundled with more powerful distribution hardware.

You can also think of it as a sign that private activists and corporate supporters are being a lot more responsive and moving a lot quicker on the problem than Congress -- the folks who have both the resources and the responsibility for the problem.

In Congress -- while members hear from food banks in their districts about sharply rising demand for emergency food, largely from working families -- legislation to try to help is moving as slowly as an untipped waiter. The Hunger Relief Act, which would try to restore food stamp support to some people bounced off in 1996, has drawn support from 1,200 groups from around the country, but its prospects in Congress are still uncertain.

"We're going to start looking for a renewed opportunity," says Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C. "We don't know what the vehicle will be."

Of course, as Vollinger notes, nobody predicted that there now would be 6 million to 7 million fewer people drawing food stamps than four years ago. As quickly as the hunger group moves to rescue surplus prepared food from hotel buffet tables, it can't move fast enough to catch up with that.

With the merger with Food Chain, America's Second Harvest will be concentrating more on "rescuing" surplus prepared food because that's where more and more contributions come from. But it also reflects a change in food banks' client base.

"People coming off welfare into the workplace lead very complicated lives," says Deborah Leff, CEO of the merged effort. "The convenience of a prepared meal means that they can spend some time with their families."

The idea that families going from welfare to work are creating a new situation is something that private hunger advocates have figured out, but politicians are understanding only slowly.

"I don't want to say this Congress is really tuned into the working poor," Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, said as the House recessed. "I think they're hearing more and more about it.

"It's still very much unknown. There's still lots of people who don't realize there is hunger in America."

Actually, some people have figured it out and are doing something about it. Just not politicians.

"One thing we've learned from both research and focus groups is that they're not aware of childhood hunger, and the extent of it in this country," says Lynn Phares, president of the ConAgra Foundation in Omaha. "But there are about 14 million children in this country either hungry or at risk of hunger."

The agribusiness giant ConAgra has been a major supporter of Second Harvest, providing trucks and computers. This fall, it will join with the Advertising Council for a campaign to raise awareness of childhood hunger.

Maybe it could raise some awareness among people running for office.

"I'm still alarmed that there are 31 million Americans facing hunger and this issue is not high on the social agenda," says Leff. "We have a political campaign, and nobody's talking about those 31 million Americans who don't have enough to eat."

It's a considerable, and important, advance that two major hunger operations have merged.

But what we need is a merger between hungry people and politicians.

2000 Oregon Live

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