This week, most of us will enjoy a fabulous Thanksgiving feast. Our holiday will be marked by an abundance of family and football and food, all in joyous testament to the good fortune we enjoy. Our tables will be set so full that by Sunday surely there may be recriminations over the monotony — if not the extravagance — of all the leftovers from a 26-pound turkey with all the trimmings.
We must indeed find time this week to give thanks for our good fortune. We must be mindful of the shared spirit of that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, nearly 400 years ago, when the Pilgrims celebrated the harvest in community with the Wampanoag people.
And we must also recognize that these times are not plentiful for every one of us.
In fact, 24.1 million Americans are living in poverty, more than at any time in our nation’s history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The economic recession has kept unemployment over 9.5 percent for more than a year. Home foreclosures are at record levels. Homelessness is on the rise. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported that 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, do not have consistent access to a nutritious, well-balanced diet.
This lack of plenty is evident at food pantries across New Jersey, which are seeing a 30 percent increase in demand over last year, according to Anthony Guido of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. That’s all the more remarkable considering that the Community FoodBank assisted 1,600 agencies in distributing 35 million pounds of food to 830,000 people last year, a 45 percent increase from 2005.
“Times are tough all around,” Guido told WBGO radio. “Our agencies will give out the food as soon as we can get it to them. That means as soon as we collect it and bring it into the food bank, it goes right back out to the charities in need.”
The need could have been much greater.
Amid all the budget trauma in New Jersey, the Christie administration and the Legislature protected state funding for a vital initiative in the Department of Agriculture called the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP). The SFPP is a supplement to the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which last year supplied about 12 million pounds of food to nearly 400,000 households in New Jersey.
Begun in FY2007 with a budget of $3.9 million, the SFPP provides state tax dollars to the Community FoodBank in order to buy food in bulk quantities to be distributed at local food pantries. In January, as he was leaving office, former Governor Corzine added $3 million more to the fund for FY2010. Governor Christie shaved off a token $100,000 from that total in his first budget, but continued the program at the more substantial level of $6.8 million for FY2011. The SFPP allows for the purchase of 9.7million pounds of food for distribution at local pantries.
Thirty-eight states invest in emergency food and nutrition programs. A study by the California Association of Food Banks earlier this year showed New Jersey was fourth among states in its funding of emergency food programs, with an annual expenditure of $22 per household. Massachusetts was first at $62, followed by New York at $36 and Pennsylvania at $32 per household.
Even so, New Jersey could improve. In 2007, only 59 percent of New Jerseyans eligible for food stamps received them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and there are 324,000 New Jersey households that are “food insecure,” meaning that all household members do not have access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times.
That first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621 was a three day harvest festival, not unlike others in ancient times or other cultures. We should all keep foremost in our minds that the gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans offered a chance for the entire community to join in the feasting and partake of the bounty that the harvest offered.