Hunger exists in the United States, and it has been a lot closer to home than most may think. According to Feeding America, a United States hunger relief organization, 48.1 million Americans have lived in food-insecure households. As the Executive Director at the Woodland Action Center -- a nonprofit food bank and resource center in Woodland, Washington -- I have discovered and observed that there is a wall of speculation, judgement, stereotypes, and biases that are associated with people who have utilized food bank services in America. And I have a secret: I believe the best of humanity exists behind the wall of hunger -- the volunteers and the clients. The people who have suffered with hunger, and the stories of those who overcame and endured difficult circumstances are, without question, extraordinary and remarkable.
1) It was Tuesday morning at 8am: distribution day. A light drizzle sprinkled on people as they held their reusable grocery bags and waited in a long line at the Woodland Action Center. People came because a basic need had not been met. But who are these people and why are they behind the wall of hunger?
2) Betty is 75 years old and only receives social security. She is a widow and must pay for her medications, which cost her $700 per month. A shocking 66% of people who are hungry have to choose between medical care and medicine or food.
3) Echo came to the food bank because there is no affordable housing. She lives in a motel and pays over $1790 per month for housing. She is single and has 2 children to support. As many as 57% of people who are hungry have to choose between food or paying their rent and mortgage.
4) Theophieus is a 21-year-old sovereign citizen. He is engaged in eclectic ideals and right-brained talent that comes with being an artist, comedian, and activist. He desires an education and a job that will honor his uniqueness. Currently 31% of people who are hungry have to choose between paying for educational costs and food.
5) Tom is a retired Marine. He experiences debilitating pain in his back and hip due to a lifetime of intensive heavy labor work. He has no family support and lives in an RV park. He lights up the hunger line with his funny jokes and stories of his past elk-hunting adventures. Transportation to the food bank can be a challenge for him. Another 66% of people who are hungry have to choose between paying for reliable transportation and food.
6) A young boy waits in a shopping cart as his mother selects food for their family. In April of this year, there were 455 individual children served at the Woodland Action Center; an increase from last year’s monthly average of 394 per month. The center has also teamed up with local schools to help stock the school’s food and clothing pantries.
7) Most of the volunteers at the Woodland Action Center who have handed out food to the community are also clients. Louise is an 82-year-old woman with a five foot, one-inch frame, on a fixed income. Her children and granddaughter live with her. She has needed food to help meet the needs of her family and has volunteered at the center every week since 2004. She often hugs and embraces food bank clients. It slows down the line, but people don’t mind, because they have received a lot more than food when they walked through the doors of the food bank. She said, “I love people and if they leave happy, it makes me happy.”
8) Another remarkable client is Dan, the food truck driver. He has white hair and a white goatee. He almost resembles a Jolly Ol’ Saint Nic. He volunteers three days a week, and he drove the center’s van with another volunteer, Ron, to pick up donated food from Safeway, Starbucks, Dairy Fresh, and Walmart. Dan can’t lift anything, but he has offered lots of moral support to Ron, who is the muscle of the team. Dan is fifty-two years old and has encountered health problems which prevented him from going back to work. His wife, Lori, had driven a special education school bus for eighteen years. They have been clients at the Woodland Action Center for approximately a year because of the financial difficulty they had encountered when Dan lost his job. Lori had tears in her eyes when she talked to me about her experience with the food bank. She said, “This helps immensely and my well-being, both physically and mentally, is better.”
9) Dhana, the floor manager, is exhausted after working 8am to 7pm. She still smiled and offered food choices, and hope to everyone in line. Dhana noticed a client was not feeling well, therefore, she tenderly grabbed items off the shelves and placed them in the client’s shopping cart. After, she helped gather shopping carts, cleaned stations, and turned out lights.
10) Dignity, acceptance, compassion, and respect have echoed throughout the walls of hunger at Woodland Action Center. The Center had over 35,635 individual visits to the food bank last year. People were fed because a few dedicated volunteers had the courage to stand up against the wall of hunger.
Leslie Mohlman is the Executive Director of Woodland Action Center, a nonprofit community action center serving Woodland, WA and surrounding rural areas. As a certified poverty coach, she is actively engaged in helping others understand the root causes of hunger and is creatively alleviating hunger in her community.