Vicki Escarra knows what it’s like to be hungry. Escarra, now the chief executive officer of America’s Second Harvest, which works with 208 food banks and 150 subsidiaries nationwide to serve 25 million of America’s hungry, grew up in urban Atlanta.
“I’m the product of a low-income family,” Escarra said. “My father worked for General Motors, and we got by. But when I was 6, my mother got very ill and was hospitalized for over a year. My father had a hard time taking care of two kids, but he was proud, and he didn’t tell anyone. There were lots of days and weeks that we had nothing to eat.”
Fortunately, Escarra and her family had help. Her church stepped in to help feed her family. “They turned our lives around,” she said.
Escarra spent 30 years at Delta Airlines. After Sept. 11 when she started to consider leaving the company, she knew where she wanted to go.
“I felt a calling to give back,” Escarra said. “I’m living proof that [Food Bank volunteers] make a big difference.”
Escarra was the keynote speaker at the Food Bank of Central New York’s 18 annual conference, held at the Holiday Inn on Electronics Parkway in Liverpool on Friday Oct. 6. The event invited volunteers and paid staff from the Food Bank’s member programs as well as attendees from Syracuse Housing Authority, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Onondaga County Department of Aging and Youth.
“We hold the conference each year to bring together people who are working toward ending hunger in our communities,” said Stephanie Crowley, development associate for the Food Bank.
The day featured workshops on the use of local foods in hunger relief, Internet ordering for Food Bank clients, nutrition and volunteerism, among other things. It is one of a number of programs the Food Bank is undertaking this month to raise money and awareness to feed Central New York’s hungry. During the entire month of October, Price Chopper grocery stores will have coupons for donations of $2, $3 and $5 as part of the Check Out Hunger campaign. The Food Bank will also host a World Food Day teleconference in conjunction with Le Moyne College on Oct. 16. The conference will focus on grassroots movements to end hunger.
The hunger epidemic
“Food is an essential need, but many people think they can do without to provide financial support to other areas,” Escarra said. “Most of America doesn’t understand the people we touch — the children who can only eat at school, the shut-ins who can’t get out to get food, the single moms and dads working two jobs just to make ends meet. Our role is to bring that message closer to home.”
Food Bank of CNY Executive Director Tom Slater agreed. “Our main focus is to help emergency food pantries,” he said. “But we’re also dedicated to outreach and education. It’s meaningful work.”
Of the 25 million people that are served by America’s Second Harvest, 50 percent are working.
“They have to decide between food and gas or medical expenses,” Escarra said.
Thirty-five percent are single mothers. There are 10 million hungry kids and 4 million seniors.
In order to meet the great need, America’s Second Harvest partners with corporate sponsors, including grocery chains and food producers, and receives funding from the government. There are over 1 million volunteers involved in the network, working through 50,000 agencies.
“Last year we collected 2 billion pounds of food,” Escarra said.
In addition to feeding those who are hungry on a daily basis, America’s Second Harvest and local food banks must step up to serve those in emergency situations. For example, most of the food collected last year went to victims of Hurricane Katrina, as did a large percentage of the $100 million raised.
Best in class
Those who face hunger every day are most likely to take advantage of the services and programs offered by the Food Bank of CNY. Started in 1985, the organization serves 11 counties and some 20,000 meals a day.
“What was once a temporary, emergency fix is now an established emergency food system that sees more need, not less, every year,” Crowley said. “More than 100,000 people in Central New York accessed the emergency food network last year.”
Indeed, hunger statistics in the Central New York area are staggering. Forty-one percent of the hungry are children, and 8 percent are seniors. More than half have a family member who works, but more than half also earn less than $10,000 a year for the entire household. And it’s not just the uneducated poor — 62 percent of hungry adults have a high school or college education.
In the hopes of addressing the needs of those people, the Food Bank of CNY has nearly 580 member programs, including food pantries, soup kitchens, rehab centers, group homes and senior centers. The Food Bank distributes 10 million pounds of food every year.
Escarra noted that the programs the Food Bank runs in Central New York are extremely successful.
“They’re best in class,” she said. “For your food stamp program, you cut down your applications from 15 pages to just three. At the same places where they get food, people can sign up for heat and transportation programs and job training. Here in New York, you’re trying to build the infrastructure to help lower-income families.”
Escarra said that America’s Second Harvest is trying to implement some of New York’s programs in other states.
Ultimately, the goal of the Food Bank and of America’s Second Harvest is to put themselves out of business by bringing an end to hunger in our community and our nation. Their programs have evolved over the last 20 years to focus on nutrition, identification of those in need and help in areas like paying for heat and job training.
“To end hunger, we need the whole community to work together,” Slater said.
He pointed out that it is up to the younger generation to take on the fight.
“There are several questions the next generation needs to answer,” he said. “How can we use technology better? How can we better identify people in need and marry them to the programs to which they’re entitled?”
Slater is confident that today’s 20- to 35-year-olds are up to the challenge.
“The younger generation is a whole lot smarter than we are,” he said. “If we can get their attention, they can do a better job. It’s in their hands.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.