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The Canton United Methodist Church regularly offers free meals. Photo: Zach Hirsch
The Canton United Methodist Church regularly offers free meals. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Systemic hunger, right here in the North Country

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In the North Country, there is an ongoing conversation about poverty, health, and hunger. Over the last five years, 40 percent more people living in St. Lawrence County have signed up for SNAP benefits, or food stamps.

Nationwide, one in six Americans doesn't know where the next meal is coming from.

Last week, about a hundred people gathered in Potsdam to watch A Place at the Table, a documentary about hunger. It's the latest film from the group behind Food, Inc.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

A Place at the Table isn’t a kick-back-and-eat-popcorn kind of movie. You can hear people’s shock, as statistics flash on the screen.

According to the filmmakers, about half of all children in the U.S. will get food stamps before they turn 18. On average, those benefits are worth less than $5 a day.

“The formula still anticipates that about a third of the food costs will be covered by other funds. Many people don’t have other funds,” said Jamie Dollahite, a Cornell professor who also leads a nutrition education program for low-income families. We spoke with Dollahite last year.

GardenShare, an anti-hunger group, is hosting the Monday night film and conversation.

“The issue isn’t enough food, it’s poverty,” says Aviva Gold, GardenShare’s executive director. “And that’s a very complicated question. And so I feel like one of the most powerful things we can all do as individuals is have these conversations with our friends and neighbors often.”

Just over 18 percent of people in St. Lawrence County are living below the federal poverty level. In Jefferson County, 15 percent are below the poverty level. That’s according to U.S. census data for the years 2008 to 2012.

Anneke Larrance is one of the organizers at GardenShare. She says trying to tackle an issue as large and complex as hunger overwhelms her.

“It’s such a big ball of things,” Larrance says. “I don’t know how you untangle it, except if you dig your way in, at one corner, and just start moving.”

Larrance says several churches serve free meals, and that’s one way to help people feed their families.

But others in the crowd say hunger is more systemic. Part of the problem is that junk food is cheap.

Processed foods don’t contain all the nutrients that the human body needs. A person can live on processed foods, but they’d still be malnourished.

Fresh fruits and vegetables do have those nutrients, but the filmmakers say fruits and veggies have become 40% more expensive since 1980. Junk foods became 40% cheaper.

That’s partly because the government subsidizes industrial farms that grow corn and soy, which are key ingredients in many junk foods.

“Those farmers vote, and they have influential lobbyists and politicians behind them,” says Sandy Stauffer, who runs a 1,500-head dairy farm in Nicholville.

Stauffer himself has benefited from government subsidies, but he agrees with the film’s message: that big agribusiness is worsening the hunger problem.

Aviva Gold says the problem of food insecurity is solvable. She says talking about it is the first step.

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