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The great connector 

My mother-in-law was a lifelong Republican, but I guarantee she'd be offended to know that Donald Trump is about to cut food services nationwide.

In fact, my husband's family has a special connection with Meals on Wheels. His mother June was ferociously self-reliant but believed deeply in public service. She possessed a religious fervor about helping those who couldn't help themselves.

She was elected supervisor by the largest plurality in county history, and one of her first acts in the late '60s was to bring Meals on Wheels to Bergen County, New Jersey. Today, my disabled brother-in-law can count on three healthy meals a week because of his mother's legacy.

Sadly, we do not witness corresponding selflessness coming from the Trump administration. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue's announcement that they intend to make cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which we all know as Food Stamps) is just one more lens into the venality, rapaciousness, and shortsightedness of this administration.

June saw decades ago that hunger existed in some of the most seemingly affluent communities—like ours—especially among children and seniors. According to the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, 46,000 residents in our county struggle with hunger, 20 percent of whom are seniors, and many are working parents. In California, 1 in 7 households face food insecurity every day; 1 out of 4 California children may go to bed hungry each night.

And yet, the proposed cuts will diminish food assistance to unemployed and underemployed in areas with insufficient jobs and high cost of living.

If you volunteer a couple of hours at one of the more than 40 food distribution sites around the county, you'll see seniors, families, students, and working poor who often must choose between housing, health care, and food. On any Saturday's distribution at Grace Church in SLO, 100 to 150 individuals line up each week to collect up to three days' worth of meals, including fresh produce that is otherwise unavailable to them.

How can such hunger exist in our great nation? How, in fact, can we be great when the government turns its back on the young, the old, and those folks who can't earn enough to cover life's fundamental expenses?

I was stunned to learn that the Food Bank distributes 5,000 pounds of food per day and serves 30,000 individuals every month.

I sat down with Kevin Drabinski, the Food Bank's CEO, to learn about hunger in San Luis Obispo.

"On average, we provide 4 million pounds per year for distribution through our 77 partner agencies, throughout the county," he said.

Our president likes to think he's the voice around which people rally. But according to Drabinksi, "Food is the great connector."

It's both encouraging and sobering to know that the Food Bank is planning and building today to address hunger for the next generation.

"The nonprofit started distributing food out of two station wagons in a church parking lot in the late '80s," Drabinski said. "Two years ago, we moved into this modern facility that has a loading ramp, refrigeration, all the requirements to ensure safety and efficiency."

A full 75 percent of the Food Bank's budget comes from donations from individuals. I invite you to take a dip in what Drabinski calls the "river of life."

Asked why he is devoted to serving the hungry, Drabinski echoes a belief shared by almost anyone involved in this work: "Everyone in this county, this nation, should be able to eat every day."

You wouldn't guess that at an elite school like Cal Poly, some students are near starving—but it's true.

Genie Kim, director of Wellbeing and Health Education at Cal Poly, told me, "I am passionate about the collective 'we,' about making food accessible to students."

It's no surprise that being hungry poses a barrier to learning. Started five years ago, Cal Poly's food pantry is part of a system-wide effort to better address the basic needs of students. I'm glad the CSU recognizes that fact and is actively developing programs to address the issue.

"Even in the last couple years, I've seen a heightened awareness of students' basic needs," Kim said. "In 2017-18, we had more than 1,800 visits to the food pantry."

And there's a yet more threatening danger on the way.

Cynically couched in rhetoric that extols the dignity of work (as if hungry and unemployed folks wouldn't love to work!), the Trump administration's announced cuts make food providers wary of ripple effects: more hungry students; more nutrition-related disease; more starving, dispirited people on our streets.

Drabinski, Kim, and their cohorts are doing the work of the angels—but it's not enough. In fact, Drabinski reminds us that a huge population of needy older people is retiring without adequate savings.

That's one reason why all the charities may be overwhelmed very soon if we don't demand that the government take care of its people. The same is true for our local Meals on Wheels (now called Meals That Connect) and No-Cook Bags, which are distributed to our unsheltered population.

The bottom line locally and nationally? The need is greater than volunteers can provide.

But, hey, Trump's cuts mean more money for the wall, right? Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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