Senators Help the Hungry

Fight to Combat Hunger Is Partly Local

Posted November 16, 2007 at 6:21pm

The saying “think globally, act locally” has come to be a cliché. But Senators on both sides of the aisle have started putting it to practice through their efforts to combat hunger, and they will continue to do so this holiday season.

One in 10 Americans go hungry each year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Members of the Senate Hunger Caucus are addressing the issue not only through legislation but also through their volunteer efforts.

Created just three and a half years ago to keep hunger issues on the front burner, the caucus grew quickly. More than a third of the chamber now belongs.

In a Congress focused on hot-button issues such as spending and the Iraq War, the caucus, which does not have its own staff, budget or office, has remained remarkably active.

Among the legislation introduced by its members is the Hunger-Free Communities Act, which would set aside $50 million annually in grants for local groups in need of support and has been incorporated into the pending farm bill.

“The reason it has been so hard to fight hunger at the federal level is because it is such a local problem,” said an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the author of the hunger provision. The language provides an “incentive that says that for communities that work together … we’ll put some money on the table for them,” the aide said.

Also on the legislative front, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), along with fellow caucus member Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), successfully attached an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill that would provide an additional $10 million in funding to deliver food to seniors in need through the Meals on Wheels program.

But to supplement these and other legislative efforts, the members of the caucus are adding a more personal touch. The group has led food drives on past Hunger Awareness Days, for instance, and has encouraged attendees at political conventions to take time out to volunteer at food banks.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), a founding member of the caucus, celebrated her birthday in 2003 by donating food to the DC Central Kitchen.

“[Dole] has been a fantastic supporter to hunger-related causes and … has been a very good friend to the kitchen,” said the DC Central Kitchen’s Ann Nix, who just organized the Capital Food Fight fundraiser, of which Dole was honorary co-chairwoman. “The legislation she’s helped to put through has really helped places like the DC Central Kitchen.”

Nix was referring to the Food Employment Empowerment and Development Program Act, which has two parts that benefit the kitchen: It provides resources to help collect food, and money for culinary job training. Dole is seeking to add an updated version to the farm bill.

“DC Central Kitchen is doing a tremendous job and they are a real model for what can be done. … You can go right over [there] and you can see how this tax credit is helping,” Dole said. “I went to one of their graduations and saw this amazing program … they are teaching these people skills they can use.” This is similar to the Community Culinary School in Charlotte, which she’ll be visiting firsthand next week.

The Senator just visited the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh this past weekend, recently spent time at MANNA FoodBank and America’s Second Harvest in her home state, and last month gleaned sweet potatoes for the Society of St. Andrew.

It is her work with the latter that spurred her idea for a hunger relief trucking tax credit, which she also is attempting to add to the farm bill. The amendment would provide a 25-cent tax credit for each mile that food is transported for hunger relief efforts.

“This tax credit I am supporting is so important because they have so many farmers that would like to help and with the rising costs of transportation just can’t afford it,” she said.

The tax credit also would encourage one of Dole’s strong passions, gleaning, where excess crops that would otherwise be thrown away are distributed to those in need.

Durbin also has personally been very involved with many hunger groups in Illinois, including St. John’s Breadline and Second Harvest.

“These are just some of the things at home that keep him focused on the issue,” the Durbin aide said.

And on top of that, the Majority Whip’s office is volunteering today at Bread for the City’s Northwest location, just like DC for Obama did Nov. 7.

Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign, which Durbin has actively supported, “has encouraged getting out into the community and helping,” said Ian Martinez, president of DC for Obama. “People are so surprised to see us. It is more about grass-roots support where people are actually volunteering, not soliciting money. That’s really the heart of the campaign.”

Lincoln, co-founder of the caucus, also is putting in some volunteer time. She has worked with several food banks around her home state of Arkansas, including Potluck, the Rice Depot and the Arkansas FoodBank. For the holidays this year, she is collecting items in her offices to donate to a battered women’s shelter in Arkansas.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said he joined the Hunger Caucus to further promote issues that he has long supported, such as incentives for charitable food donation and elimination of childhood hunger.

His interest in hunger issues goes back to the early 1960s when he was on the school board in Indianapolis, an aide said. “It was the first time the schools took the School Lunch Program and he saw firsthand what this federal legislation could do for a community.”

In 2000, food banks came to the Senator saying many groups couldn’t afford to donate extra food and supplies, the aide said, because the tax deduction wasn’t enough to cover the transportation for the donations. That was when he sponsored the Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Act — which allows farmers and small-business owners to receive tax deductions for food donations, previously only offered to large corporations. This also began a longtime partnership with Second Harvest, whose national headquarters is in Chicago.

Just recently, in the Senate Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, the Senator secured $1 million for the Second Harvest Food Bank of East Central Indiana.

Lugar also is very involved with dozens of food banks throughout Indiana, including Gleaners Food Bank, which is the recipient of the Senator’s annual holiday food drive this year.

For many in the caucus, an interest in staving off hunger is nothing new. For Dole, a former president of the Red Cross, hunger has always been a top priority. She even gave her maiden speech on the Senate floor in 2003 on this issue.

“My years at the Red Cross I saw some images that will really haunt me for the rest of my life,” Dole told Roll Call. “I don’t think you really understand the horror of starvation until you see it firsthand.”