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Editorial: Hunger in America as close as next door

Niles Township Food Pantry employee Tony Araque Chicago unloads new batch food from Greater Chicago Food Depository last week. The

Niles Township Food Pantry employee Tony Araque of Chicago unloads a new batch of food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository last week. The food pantry, located in Skokie, has seen an explosion in the need for food and has been trying to keep up with the unprecedented demand. Mike Isaacs~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:28AM

Vercilla Cannon worked for 40 years as an accountant, but now, beset by high medical bills at age 68, she relies on a food pantry to get fruit and vegetables for the 10-year-old grandnephew she and her husband are raising.

Paul Rugani, now 78, had a good factory job in Cicero, but has had to rely on odd jobs since the factory closed about 20 years ago. He and his wife, Sylvia, can’t put three meals on the table on some days and go hungry. In his younger days, he says, he never would have expected he’d someday be glad to get dinner at a soup kitchen.

Cannon and Rugani are just two of the thousands of people the Chicago Food Depository has met and served in a never-ending effort to keep hunger at bay. People like Cannon and Rugani live in pretty much every Chicago neighborhood and suburb.

The lesson of this is clear: The federal government should not cut food aid, and all of us should do more to help.

Helping people put food on the table is not easy. The food depository has seen an 85 percent increase from five years ago in the number of visits to the more than 400 food pantries in the Chicago area. The number of visits from July through September set a record for the 34-year-old agency.

“We are doing a booming business, and we don’t want to be,” said executive director Kate Maehr. “These are people who have jobs or they have recently had jobs. They have paid their taxes, sent their kids to school, went to church and they still find themselves in a set of circumstances where they don’t have enough food in their house.”

Meanwhile, food donations are down from last year by about 3 million pounds, largely because of the summer drought.

And as if that was not enough to worry about, policymakers in Washington are talking about cutting support for federal nutrition programs to help balance the budget. More than 47 million Americans rely on that assistance.

“We sit here and we watch, in this overwhelming sea of need — as every day we try to make a miracle happen, to make sure someone gets some food — and you see a conversation in Washington about cutting food aid,” Maehr said. “How can you possibly do that?”

As part of federal farm legislation, a bill in the House would reduce nutrition spending by $1.6 billion a year by tightening eligibility. A Senate bill would cut $400,000 a year.

Spending on federal food programs also is jeopardized by lawmakers trying to find savings in the nation’s budget to avoid a “fiscal cliff,” a combination of spending and revenue cuts that will go into effect in January unless an agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, the food depository is trying to increase donations. It’s One City, One Food Drive runs through Dec. 31 with special events and hundreds of places to drop off food. Donations of shelf-stable food items can be made at City Hall; more than 125 downtown office buildings, including the Aon Center, John Hancock Center and Willis Tower; 100 Chase Bank branches in the city; Whole Foods Market stores, and Interpark parking garages. The goal is to collect 1 million meals.

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