A long line of people wrapping around the building, mostly men and women but some children too, hugging the wall, waiting to get in.
Waiting for a place at the table.
No, this line is not the line winding every night around the Preble Street Soup Kitchen.
Though this line is about hunger, it is a different one. It’s filled with people who want to stop hunger, who care about this injustice and who want to know how they can stop it.
This is the sell-out crowd lined up at the Nickelodeon theater in Portland to see “A Place at the Table,” a film about hunger that’s getting the nation’s attention.
As lines have gotten longer at food pantries and soup kitchens across Maine and across the country, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative has been raising awareness of this tragic symptom of poverty and helplessness. We agree that there needs to be targeted action to end hunger. The hundreds of people at the film also agree. The energy and passion in the theater was contagious.
As we have known for years, Mainers care for and about each other.
They have been feeding their hungry neighbors for years while the problem keeps increasing. They want to know how we really can wipe out hunger.
As they well know, and the documentary pointed out emphatically, the valiant efforts of charitable organizations to feed their neighbors are simply not enough.
Thirty-five years ago, there were 200 emergency food programs in the entire country. Now there are more than 40,000.
Community-based food pantries work hard to help their neighbors. But it’s not enough.
In the late 1970s the United States had essentially eradicated hunger. What has happened in the past 35 years? What has propelled our nation to the top of the list of industrialized nations with the worst hunger problems? The film describes the social, economic and political changes that led to this sad and shameful position.
But the film is clear that we can change that. If there is public will, as there was before, we can end hunger.
While we work toward a strong economy and livable wage jobs that eliminate the need for support and assistance for Americans, we can make policies that reduce hunger now.
Right now we can strengthen the U.S. Department of Agriculture federal nutrition programs as we have in the past. Support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC; National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program, Farm to School Program, and the Senior Farm Share Program can end lines at soup kitchens and food pantries.
These programs bring economic benefits to our communities beyond their impact on hunger. For example, every $5 of SNAP generates $9 in the local economy. Farmers gain more economic opportunities when more people purchase healthy foods through these programs. And making sure our neighbors have nutritious food contributes to improved health and reduced health care costs.
A 2013 Deloitte study conducted with the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength shows direct links between child hunger nutrition, and learning. Children who eat breakfast in school score 17.5 percent higher in standardized math tests and miss less school. Children with regular school attendance are 20 percent more likely to graduate.
Making sure our neighbors have access to nourishing food is a win for all.
While there are many public policies and legislative efforts aimed at reducing hunger, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative is prioritizing three things people can do to help right now:
1. Tell Washington to keep its promise and fully reinstate SNAP in the Farm Bill. Sign on to www.nyccah.org/keepyourpromisetoourkids.
2. Tell Maine leaders to save the General Assistance program from proposed cuts. If this vital safety net is eroded, thousands more Mainers will be forced into food pantry lines and their children will be hungrier.
3. Keep up with other actions to end hunger or volunteer for efforts to ensure that more kids get healthy, nutritious meals. Sign up or get more information at www.preblestreet.org
At the conclusion of the film, the audience tweeted President Barack Obama, congressional delegates and their Maine legislators. It felt strange to encourage cellphone use in a theater, but it was inspiring to be surrounded by friends and neighbors taking action together.
Join us. Take a stand against hunger today.
Mark Swann is executive director of Preble Street in Portland. Donna Yellen is the Maine Hunger Initiative and advocacy director of Preble Street.