Fighting hunger in a land of plenty

Feeding America helps distribute donated food to agencies across the United States.

Feeding America helps distribute donated food to agencies across the United States. hunger hungry food bank


We dream all year of a big Thanksgiving feast. Happily, most of us can bank on it. And even folks going through hard times have reason to hope for a place at the table, thanks to their selfless neighbors in this land of plenty. Barry Petersen reports our Cover Story:

It has been a good year for food in America: A record soybean harvest, the second highest corn harvest ever, potatoes and apples . . . all up.

Good news for bad times. Because America is, more than ever, the land of the hungry.

Last week, the government said 49 million Americans are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. That is almost one in six . . . and 17 million of those are kids.

It's a HUGE problem being met with a huge response.

We visited a warehouse run by Feeding America.

"This is BIG," said Peterson, "but you have big all over the country?"

"If you think in terms of the top 10 metropolitan cities in the U.S., we have a food bank like this in all of those," said feeding America's CEO Vicki Escarra. 

Bank On It by CBS News on YouTube

It runs out of a Chicago skyscraper, not a church basement, and its reach is nationwide.

"If you were to look at the fact that our network will deliver close to 3 billion pounds of food this year, you know, we are one of the largest grocery stores in the country," Escarra said.

The largest supplier of free food in the nation, with 205 warehouses like this one in Chicago where work starts at dawn.

"Starting at 5:00 a.m., trucks are departing to go across the country and provide truckloads of food to the 63,000 agencies, taking food to community kitchens, to kids' cafes, to churches, to synagogues."

Stocking food banks goes hand-in-hand with getting the food, and that is where the late John Van Hengel comes in.

In 1967 he had an idea that changed America: Collect excess food from supermarkets or farms where it was going to be thrown away, and bring it a central location where it could be withdrawn, like money from a bank.

St. Mary's Food Bank, our nation's first, was born.

Van Hengel told his story to "Sunday Morning" in 1981: "I think of ourselves in a funny way as someone who applied the principle of begging, and found that it was successful. There's a certain pride thing that says you wouldn't beg for yourself, but you might beg for someone else."

This is a country that donates freely - a bountiful harvest of generosity. The challenge is getting all this donated food from the warehouses to the people who need it.

Every day, those who feed the hungry come to St. Mary's to make food withdrawals.

Nicole Pena runs the Phoenix Rescue Mission. She sees the need with every day's headlines.

"We're able to look at the unemployment rate, and know that we're going to have a line," Pena said.

Volunteers pack bags all day, because all day long the hungry come for food . . . people like Susan.

"Well, I'm without a job right now, and I'm finding it difficult to find work, and plus being a senior, that makes it more difficult," she said. "We're pretty lucky to be in the country that we're in, because there are a lot of countries that don't have this.

"It just shows you that America cares about us."

And now there is another good idea driving food banks: a focus on good food.

The California Association of Food Banks recently started the "farm to family program" - volunteers gather fresh produce for food banks like one in Oakland, so the hungry can eat healthy.

Susan Bateson, who runs the operation, showed off her bounty: broccoli, Portobello mushrooms, lovely potatoes and yams, carrots.

"We serve 40,000 people every week at the Alameda County Community Food Bank," she told :Peterson. "Sadly, 14,000 of those people that we serve are children."

It's the children, more than anything else, that led singer Sheryl Crow to get involved. She wrote a new song, "All We Need," available later this month on iTunes. The proceeds will go to Feeding America.

"I think there are a lot of organizations that shine a light on different areas in the world, yet here in our own country, living amongst us, are kids who go to school who have not eaten breakfast, or don't have money for lunch, and families who are utilizing food banks, and it's not getting better with the economy the way it is," Crow said.

And so groups like Feeding America work to meet the growing need, believing that if even one American goes hungry this Sunday morning, that is one too many.

"You would only have to meet with one child who doesn't have enough food to eat, seriously," said Vicki Escarra. "Or one working mother who can only put a can of beans on the table. Or one senior citizen who's worked their whole life, and they only have a few potatoes in their kitchen to know why we feel such urgency. We don't have a choice."

For more info:
Feeding America
St. Mary's Food Bank
California Association of Food Banks
Alameda County Community Food Banks
Phoenix Rescue Mission
Check out the CBS News "Sunday Morning" Recipes Index for more tasty selections from our guests, contributors and Bon Appetit magazine!