Would You Give a Stone? – Reflections from a Synod Hunger Co-Chair
by Theodore L. Cockley, Hunger Task Force, co-chair, Upper Susquehanna Synod -ELCA
When I agreed to co-chair our Synod’s Hunger Task Force, I thought I was reasonably aware of the problem that hunger presents to us every day. This wasn’t a new challenge for me; I’d been preaching about hunger and social justice issues for most of my parish ministry. It was always a real problem; it was always with us; and, for the most part it was always somewhere else. Even local food pantries that I regularly urged parishioners to support had that ‘someplace else’ quality about them.
But when I started to prepare our Task Force’s report for Synod Assembly, I saw the problem as I had never seen it before. We started to look at the school districts in our Synod and made some disquieting discoveries: The ‘best’ districts in our Synod had about 25% of their students eligible for free or reduced cost lunches; the ‘worst’ had more than 60% of their students qualify; and across our Synod, 48% of children under 18 lived in poverty. The reality became clear as we worked on that report: none of those numbers were good numbers, and they’re not getting better.
That discovery process continued last week when Karl Runser, my co-chair, and I attended a school nutrition roundtable conversation hosted by Congressman Glenn Thompson (R, PA-5). School nutritionists and dietitians were the primary attendees, and they spoke forcefully about their concerns: too many reports to complete, inflexible regulations, and a lack of local discretion in making decisions about what to serve and how to prepare it. As we listened, it became clear that these are people who care deeply about their work and the students in their schools. They try to use fresh foods that are locally produced, they try to be creative in what they prepare and serve, and they know they are fighting an uphill battle. They also face their own internal challenges because food service departments are responsible for all their income and expenses, including funding for their staffs. That piece of the problem was an unexpected and an unpleasant surprise.
The problems they face, however, do not deter their commitment. One nutritionist was quite outspoken about providing a hot breakfast to children in poverty instead of cold cereal and energy bars: “How can I do that? I know the kids who won’t have a real meal from the time they leave school on Friday until they come back on Monday.” This is the dedication that can help us make a difference. If we are determined to bring an end to hunger, these are the people who can help us. I am convinced that this is something we can do. Why wouldn’t we? Who among us would give a stone?