The national debate over the use of the phrases "Seasons Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas" has resurfaced as the true meaning of the season is once again overshadowed by the words that describe it. Words like love, compassion and charity have disappeared from our holiday lexicon. God, if (s)he exists, is surely weeping as (s)he peers down upon our failures and excesses in a time of increased want around the world, including in America. We contribute billions in international food aid, yet much of it never reaches the poor and hungry. Malnutrition and hunger kill 25,000 people a day, more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, while wars on poverty and hunger that could be waged in the United States are unfunded in favor of other "wars".
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released "Household Food Security in the United States 2004," which states that hunger increased nearly fifteen percent in one year. It is likely that the 2005 report will reflect that it is now escalating even faster due to more recent events, such as natural disasters, inflation, and lack of good jobs. More of us are poor, nearly forty million in 2004, and more of us are hungry, but media mention of food continues to be limited to the yearly admonition to cook our turkeys properly, lest we poison our families. More of us can't afford that turkey or its equivalent, particularly in black and Hispanic households and those headed by single women. Approximately twelve percent, or more than thirteen million, American households are "food insecure," which is to say that they are unsure of their ability to provide "enough food for an active healthy life for all household members." Sometimes they can, sometimes they can't. Many times they juggle bills or forego buying necessities in order to fill their shopping carts. More than a third of that number are so food insecure that the USDA classifies them as "hungry."
The USDA reports that the greatest shortfall is in the South and West, where amber waves of grain sway grandly in field after field, but where the highest number of families are food insecure. Among the hungry are the homeless, and their numbers are growing. Montana, which is fifth from the bottom in personal income, has more than its share of needy families. Even in the very few Montana cities and towns where the living standard is higher, there are the hungry. Itís hard to keep track in big cities, where tens of thousands of hungry and/or homeless compete for diminishing services, while in Bozeman, MT it is more easily studied because of the smaller scale of the problem. And the man who probably understands Bozemanís problem best is missionary chef Paul Thomas, who serves between forty-five and sixty meals a day from his old Ford van. Beginning in June 2000, Thomas has parked on downtown East Main Street to serve morning breakfast, and near the local Wal-Mart at the other end of town for lunch. He calls his mobile ministry "His Soup" and leaves home each day at four a.m. to begin "His Work," which is not connected to any particular religion, but which does operate on faith. Most of the food Thomas offers comes from the local food bank and the Salvation Army, and the mobile soup kitchen and Thomasís family are supported by donations. He has never solicited funds, but he manages to get by with help that comes in unexpected ways.
Thomas says that whenever he has a need, it is somehow met. On one particular day, he had plenty of hot dogs to cook for the hungry, but no buns, and no money to buy them. Just as he was about to serve them, a man stopped at the van and told Thomas he had twelve dozen hot dog buns in his car, left over from an event held the previous evening. Did Thomas want them? With all of its riches, Bozeman doesnít have a homeless shelter. The Methodist Church offers shower facilities, and Thomas offers food. In a town where the temperature recently dropped to thirty degrees below zero, nearly fifty people are sleeping outdoors. Some have jobs, but they can't afford the steep rents, and so they remain in their cars and tents. And Thomas continues to provide food, and hope, to men and women who might otherwise go hungry.
In all regions of the country, hunger and homelessness have increased with the dismal (real) economic picture and stagnant and slipping wages. There is no more Aid to Families with Dependent Children. We canít be sure how many homeless there are, in part because the U.S. Census Bureau refused to release figures from the last census, thereby vaporizing the total numbers upon which need could be based. And municipalities are increasingly banning services like mobile food kitchens from the city centers in an effort to decrease the visibility of the problem. Proposed congressional changes in poverty programs include eliminating more than 200,000 from the Food Stamp Program, which currently serves about one-third of those who are qualified, and cutting back on subsidized school lunches. The burden is being shifted to the states, but when the impact of the pension crisis that is fomenting in cities and states across the country is fully realized, funds that by law will be funneled into these programs will substantially reduce those that serve the poor and the hungry.
The government as a benevolent caregiver is an utter failure. Aid to the hungry is more efficiently accomplished on a local level, which is why the Salvation Army is so effective. The red kettle immediately brings to mind the faces of the people we might be helping. The woman wrapped in layers of clothing standing outside the big box store singing and waving her bell, the volunteers at the food pantry and those who donate, local churches and charities, and Paul Thomas -- these may ultimately be the only remaining providers of a basic human need. And as another Dickens character might add, "God bless them, every one."
Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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