Real Food For Thought

Alex Toro threads his big white truck through traffic, making the kind of pilgrimage New York City foodies live for. No stop at Le Bernardin today, the French fish restaurant that is routinely named one of the city's best, or Whole Foods, the Tiffany of supermarkets, although Toro has been to both. Instead he pulls up to the Sullivan Street Bakery as the smell of freshly baked bread spills out onto the pavement, then moves on to Hale and Hearty Soups, where today there's Italian lentil and pasta e fagiole. Then it's up to Balducci's for big bags of rolls.

That's one part of his daily route. The second is the eaters, not the eateries. A small church with a shelter, a large one with a food pantry in the basement. At Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen the line snakes down the block, and the people on it look like the cast of one of those movies in which every variation of humanity is assembled in one place: young bike messengers, old alcoholics and a woman with silver hair and a good leather purse whose posture bespeaks fierce pride. One of the men calls out to Alex in a sandpaper voice, "You bring the bread?"

Nearly 25 years ago a simple and elegant Robin Hood of an idea took root in a fledgling organization called City Harvest. Take the overflow from New York's restaurants, hotels, wholesalers and markets, and pass it on to the soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries. This year the group expects to distribute more than 21 million pounds of food. Sad to say, New Yorkers need it.

At this time of year, as every lifestyle magazine seems to veer from the perfect cookie recipe to the surefire post-holiday diet, it's worth noting that the United States is still in the grip of a hunger epidemic. The Department of Agriculture released the figures just before most of us dug into our turkey and yams: 35 million people don't have enough food, 12 million of them children. America's Second Harvest, a consortium of emergency food organizations, says 25 million people sought help from it last year.

When a social problem is intractable and profoundly serious, you can usually complain that the public doesn't know, corporations don't care and philanthropy hasn't stepped up, that there's no creative thinking and limited resources. None of that is true of hunger in America. The resources exist: "There's food that we can pick up this hour that can be feeding people in the next hour, or be in the garbage by the end of the day," says Jennifer McLean, City Harvest's vice president of program operations. And Americans know real need exists, too; one survey showed that a majority of those polled believe hunger is as bad or worse here as in other developed countries.

Many companies have contributed manpower and money to the effort. Food banks have sprung up throughout the country. And some of the newest initiatives are plenty smart, like the school program that sends kids home for the weekend with a backpack full of food. Smart, and sad: the idea came in part because teachers who oversaw meal programs noticed how many kids gorged themselves on Fridays, preparing for two days of bare cupboards.

Even government can't take all the blame for some of the holes in this terribly porous safety net. A fraction of the students who eat subsidized school lunches also take part in breakfast programs, in part because schools have struggled with the logistics. That shortfall has left billions in federal subsidies unspent. And food banks report that only about a third of their patrons receive food stamps, although many more are eligible.

Of course, applying for food stamps is an arduous process--in Nebraska the application runs 25 pages, and looking at the regulations made my head spin--and the offices at which to do so are open only during work hours, when the working poor have to be at work. And the USDA didn't inspire confidence when it decided for official purposes to replace the word "hunger" with something called "food security." Yeah, and ketchup is a vegetable.

Sometimes advocates complain that organizations like City Harvest are treating only the symptoms, not the underlying root causes. And some of those root causes are clear. It should be possible to apply for food stamps online and at off-hours. More schools should offer breakfast. And working people, who account for about a third of those who use emergency food programs, should be paid a living wage. The current minimum wage is a joke if you look at the cost of a loaf of bread.

But in the short term treating symptoms works just fine for someone who has an empty stomach and an empty fridge. In the back of Alex Toro's truck are bags of potatoes, cases of lemonade, flats of mayonnaise. Jilly Stephens, the executive director of City Harvest, has seen what happens after the truck arrives when she goes out in the field: the bowls, the spoons, the open mouths, the sated looks. Recently at one shelter she saw a brace of high chairs, neatly stacked, waiting for their tiny occupants. That's not food insecurity; that's unconscionable.