We all know the standard routine for anyone intent on helping to end hunger in America: reaching deep into cupboards for some old canned corn or peach halves to donate. Maybe you bypass the canned goods and go straight to writing a check to a local food bank. For those who prefer hands-on volunteer work, there’s always helping out at a neighborhood soup kitchen.
Now, don’t get us wrong: we’re not trying to paint an unflattering picture of these tried-and-true methods of fighting hunger in America. Soup kitchens and food banks can be extremely effective at getting meals to those who need them most. But if we have any hope of getting more people to take interest in learning how to stop hunger, we’re going to have to give them something fresh and interesting to get behind. If we can convince sustainable lifestyle advocates that volunteering can be exciting, we stand a much better chance of effectively fighting poverty in the U.S. and stamping out hunger.
Here are five interesting new strategies that are helping to end hunger in America. Some are putting a new twist on old favorites (like the canned food drive). Others are finding ways to prevent food waste on farms and in restaurants that can be used to help the needy. One is even using the power of economics to cut off hunger at the root. This is your primer for how to stop hunger in the 21st century – find the strategy that’s right for you, then get out there and make a difference.
5 Fresh Ways to End Hunger in America
1. Make a Competitive Sculpture. New York event planner Karen Brown has some advice for anyone looking to add a little spice to an office canned food drive: do something fun with those canned goods and turn it into a competition.
“Involvement with the nonprofit Canstruction, Inc., is a creative way for local communities and companies in the architecture, design or construction industry to help fight hunger in America,” says Brown. “They hold annual design and build competitions where participants construct massive structures made entirely out of canned food. The structures are on display for up to two weeks for public viewing, after which a committee votes on the best sculptures.”
The top prize? Bragging rights, plus satisfaction from helping those in need: at the end of a Canstruction competition, all of the cans used in the building process get donated to local food banks. Karen Given, a producer at 90.9 WBUR (Boston’s NPR news station), details the effects of a Massachusetts-area Canstruction event in 2012: “Five days after teams completed their sculptures, they reconvened for the ceremonial presentation of 58,391 cans of food to Amy Pessia, Executive Director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank.” And the benefits from each individual competition add up fast: in 2010 alone, Canstruction collected and donated more than 2 million pounds of food.
2. Fill a Backpack With Food. Poverty in the U.S. hits children the hardest, and federal programs that help feed malnourished kids (such as the Free and Reduced-Price Meal Program) are one of our most effective tools for making sure that no child goes without breakfast or lunch. However, school lunch programs can’t do anything to keep kids fed on the weekend.
Blessings in a Backpack has found a creative solution to this problem: they send school kids home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of granola bars, peanut butter, tuna and other nutritious food. Costs are kept low to maximize the program’s impact, so a donation of as little as $80 can supply a year’s worth of weekend meals for one child. As of right now, they’re doing a great job at it – currently the program is feeding over 60,000 children in more than 40 states.
And helping to fight hunger in America by providing schoolchildren with backpacks full of food has effects that go beyond full stomachs. Julie Siple, a reporter who covers hunger for Minnesota Public Radio News, says that backpack programs have had a positive effect on attendance rates and academic performance at local schools.
“Children who receive the backpacks are almost never absent on Fridays,” Siple says. “Research shows students who are not hungry learn more, receive higher math scores and are less likely to repeat a grade.”
Get involved by volunteering for a local program or at a school that works with Blessings in a Backpack, or donate money to a related program today.
3. Gather Farm Leftovers. Author and activist Raegan Payne is no stranger to volunteering for a good cause – she’s donated time to over 90 non-profits, detailing her adventures in her blog, The Good Muse. So when she says that gleaning is the best option for volunteers interested in figuring out how to stop hunger, we’re definitely taking notice. Gleaning is the practice of gathering fruits and vegetables left behind on farms after a harvest and donating them to shelters and food banks, and it might just be the ultimate volunteer opportunity for sustainable lifestyle advocates.
Payne has worked with a southern California organization, Food Forward, to collect unsold produce from farmers markets and fruit from local citrus trees. According to Payne, Food Forward has donated more than 1 million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill. If you’re hoping to prevent food waste while you help end hunger in America, look no further.
4. Prevent Food Waste in the City. If you’d like to help others in a way that supports a sustainable lifestyle, but you live in a place where gleaning isn’t a great option (a dense metropolitan area, for example, or in a climate that doesn’t support much growing), don’t give up hope. There are many groups in urban centers, such as San Francisco’s Food Runners, which prevent food waste in grocery stores, cafes and hotels by rescuing unsold food and distributing it to the needy. Every week, Food Runners is able to deliver about 10 tons of food to hungry Bay Area residents – that’s 2,000 meals every day, and all from food that would otherwise end up in the trash.
Ashley Stanley founded Lovin’ Spoonfuls as a Boston-area answer to Food Runners after a lunch out made her think about the number of meals going to waste in area restaurants. She notes that regulations in Massachusetts require all food rescuers and drivers to be fully certified, licensed and insured, reducing the options for volunteers who’d like to help collect food.
“There are other ways to get involved with Lovin’ Spoonfuls, though, including volunteering for our popular fundraising and awareness events,” Stanley says. For example, in November Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ hosts an annual Ultimate Tailgate Party, where Boston’s top chefs gather along the waterfront and raise money to help end hunger.
5. Make a Micro Loan. If you’re more interested in teaching a man to fish than giving him some leftover tuna, Brad Hines (founder of HungryKids.org) offers up a market-based solution that is battling against hunger around the world.
“Concepts like microfinancing, where individuals use websites like Kiva.org to advance small loans, are pretty much the most beneficial and direct way we have seen so far to alleviate hunger on a long-term timeline,” says Hines. “Microfinancing doesn’t just transfer wealth – it acts as an economic stimulant for shopkeepers, herders, farmers and other food-related entrepreneurs around the world.”
Microloan projects, like The Hunger Project’s Microfinance Program, give rural groups access to credit that might otherwise be unavailable – this helps them to finance small businesses and feed their communities. The Hunger Project trains participants to save money, identify potential investment opportunities and manage a small business. THP then disburses loans, charging interest rates that are well below commercial levels. The aim of the Microfinance Program is to set up a series of self-sufficient rural banks where community members can take out loans when crops or livestock are hit hard by drought, flood or fire.
Most micro loan programs are focused on Central/South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, but Kiva and other organizations are starting to branch out into the United States. A contribution of as little as $25 will combine with funds from thousands of other investors to help support entrepreneurs around the world, and you can do it all with just a couple mouse clicks.
Don’t underestimate the significance of your donations in the fight to end hunger in America – even if you just have a few minutes or a few dollars to give. With almost 50 million hungry mouths to feed here at home, and almost a billion undernourished people around the world, the scope of the problem can seem overwhelming. For every person who struggles, though, there are eight more who can help.
If we all band together and give what we can, hunger will be a relic of a time gone by. We’re hoping that these new programs will allow even more sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts to volunteer against hunger, bringing us one step closer to a world without starvation.
What are your favorite volunteer opportunities for feeding the needy? Comment below to let us know how you’re helping to end hunger in your community.