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Helping feed thy neighbor
Feb. 20, 2023 6:00 am
There are 40 million people in our country living in poverty. Those who study mealtime in America concluded: “One in seven working families, do not have sufficient money to meet household needs.” Those needs start with food. In addition to working families, there are those who cannot work.
About a quarter of those needing food help are the most vulnerable, those under 18 or over 65.
Some of them live under bridges, some hidden away in inadequate housing. They are almost always underfed.
Some people take the Biblical injunction to feed the hungry seriously. Free Lunch in Iowa City has been at it for 40 years. Their guiding principle is simple and clear: “An open door, a full plate, no questions asked.”
Currently Free Lunch offers a really good meal to about 125 people, sometimes a few more, six days a week. They do it on donations. (Make one. It feels good) and with volunteers.
Every couple of months I volunteer for a few hours at Free Lunch. My special and newly learned skill is slicing radishes, carrots, and cauliflower. Sometimes I get to wash lettuce and tear it into bite-size pieces. Other volunteers cook, bake, serve, and clean. A good share of the vegetables come free from local grocery chains just before first signs of wilt, and still are tasty and nutritious. Produce from farmers markets also find its way to the tables. On a recent day, the menu included roasted chicken fresh out of the oven, beans, salad, bread, among other things, including a simple dessert.
The volunteers usually belong to some group, but others are just caring individuals happy to help others eat. My group of about a dozen comes as members of the Johnson County Democratic Party, but others come through their church or some social association.
Free Lunch exists because hungry people do as well. Most of us just don’t know anyone with an empty larder. Almost 10 percent of our U.S. population live in poverty and most are working poor. It’s tough to pay for the rent, transportation to work, a new pair of old jeans for a growing teenager. You don’t ever buy a Dairy Queen.
If the recipients are working, why are they so poor? A minimum wage job in Iowa pays $7.25 an hour, about $1,300 a month. Rent for a plain to decrepit two-bedroom apartment may rent for $600 a month, possibly more. You can’t walk to work ordinarily, and gas for an old-car costs over $3 a gallon. Food on any day is sparse. By the end of the month, there may be so little that Free Lunch is a banquet made in heaven.
You can see those who are overweight, but hunger is invisible. Some who need a meal exist, but do not thrive in every county. In the city, they may mow your lawn or wash your new car.
Simply, there are thousands of our fellow Iowans who are underfed and often hungry. It is obviously not an easy problem to solve. No quick fix from the Legislature will do it. Free Lunch is a model, not a solution. The hungry will be with us, but a small, steady local effort like Free Lunch’s gives hope as well as calories to people in need.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary.
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