By Joshua B. Pedersen, Interim Senior Director 211, United Way Worldwide
When I was a young father, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Every morning before school, I made my three kids PB&J sandwiches for their lunches. They liked creamy peanut butter, grape jelly, and preferred wheat bread. I remember the days leading up to payday when I worried if the half loaf of bread would be enough. Would I have to fold a piece of bread in half and send them to school with less than a whole sandwich? On pay day, I would sometimes run to the grocery store early in the morning for a new loaf of bread before I packed their lunches. Although my sandwich-making ritual caused anxiety a few times each month, packing their lunch was also a symbol of consistency, my being present and providing for my children. For my children, sandwiches meant security. Imagine how many other children feel the same way?
The end of harvest season is a great time to celebrate hard work and enjoy abundance – symbolized in the U.S. by the Thanksgiving feast. But for too many people in America, basics like food, housing, healthcare, and transportation are scarce. Thanksgiving plans can create anxiety for parents struggling to feed their children and choosing to feast may mean sacrificing a medicine refill or postponing a car repair needed for work.
By Joshua B. Pedersen
Interim Senior Director 211,
United Way Worldwide
Since COVID-19 began, the number of hungry Americans has continued to rise; some 42 million Americans aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from today. About 13 million of those are children. More sobering, per a recent USDA report “the prevalence of food insecurity also increased for households with Black, non-Hispanic householders or reference persons (an adult household member in whose name the housing unit is owned or rented) from 19.1 percent in 2019 to 21.7 percent in 2020 and was higher in 2020 for households in the South.”
I work for United Way 211, a 24/7 helpline operating in 180 languages across 96% of the U.S., connecting more than 20 million people with local services. With 4 million requests annually for food assistance, we see every day how hunger is worsened by transportation barriers, unstable housing, and is a symptom of complex medical conditions. But what many don’t realize is that food programs deliver more than just a box of groceries. They serve as a gateway to other solutions to pressing social problems and are a critical part of helping people get to self-sufficiency.
Improving Quality of Life
As a volunteer for a food pantry one summer, I was assigned to deliver food boxes to homebound senior citizens. I delivered food boxes to six different seniors every week and I saw their empty cupboards and bare refrigerators, but I also met pets, admired figurine collections, watched a few daytime game shows with them (Make a Deal, anyone?), and heard their life stories. I quickly realized that my service was about more than food – it was about delivering smiles, hugs, a listening ear and helping people stave off loneliness or isolation. I “adopted” more than 20 new grandparents that summer. For each of them, food also brought companionship that sustained life and improved quality of life.
Mobilizing our Community Best
Working at a food bank during the holidays is like working retail during the holidays. It’s long hours, massive inventory, and a spike in demand for services. That was my job in my 20s, and it wasn’t easy. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, I was assigned to work the late shift on the warehouse docks. But I wasn’t prepared to see the long line of cars waiting to pull up to our docks – a line waiting to drop off donations of frozen turkeys. I’ll never forget the family that had just come from the grocery store, where each family member picked out the biggest turkey they could carry. That donation of frozen birds was about family unity, sharing, and a new giving tradition. Donating Thanksgiving meals brings my organization’s mission to life: improving lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities.
Delivering Food to Address Whole-Person Health
In 2020, United Way and 211 launched Ride United: Last Mile Delivery, which provides free deliveries of food pantry boxes, meals, and other essential items to those who can’t access food any other way. Ride United has been supported by more than 400 nonprofit, public, and business partners, including food pantries, schools, restaurants, community gardens, and places of worship to serve families in neighborhoods across the nation. Since the pandemic began, the program has made more than 650,000 deliveries in more than 350 communities, providing more than 8 million meals to date.
But again, it’s about more than food. Philip, a 59-year-old man, called 211 in Cleveland for help finding food. Talking to Philip, the 211 call specialist realized his challenges went far beyond a bag of groceries. Philip was living in an unfurnished apartment and dealing with a spinal cord injury that impaired his movement. He had a chair, a blanket, and a single can of soup. Even if he could have comfortably traveled to a food pantry, he didn’t have a pen or paper to write down the address 211 could provide.
The 211 call specialist immediately arranged for food to be delivered, and helped Philip access a case manager to address his longer-term needs. 211’s response opened the door for Philip to take action to improve his quality of life and renew his independence. Philip’s call for help provided nourishment, but also sparked his journey back to health and safety.
Feeling Safe and Secure
Though my own days of worrying about how to feed my kids are thankfully behind me, I know that the struggle is still real for many across America. Until we have solutions to the problems of hunger and other social ills in this country, 211 is committed to being there, offering food assistance and much, much more.
Want to donate in your community? Contact your local United Way here.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please call 211 or visit 211 to be connected to support and programs in your community.