grocery items in a checkout laneH​ave you ever known a child who received free or reduced priced meals at school, or a family who received food stamps? Have you ever volunteered at a food pantry, soup kitchen, or community garden? Have you ever been a recipient of food from one of these places? And have you ever thought about how you can get involved to make a difference in your community?

Food insecurity and hunger affect children and adults long-term. Purdue Extension has a role in helping alleviate these issues, and offers ways for youth to get involved and make a difference.

To learn more about food insecurity and how youth can get involved, Angie Frost invited Melissa Maulding and Steve McKinley to share their knowledge and advice. Melissa is the director of the Nutrition Education Program for Purdue Extension and a registered dietitian; Steve is an Extension Specialist working in Leadership and Volunteerism. ​

Angie: Thank you both for joining us today to discuss the important topic of food insecurity and hunger. Melissa, can you tell us what these terms mean and if there’s a difference or distinction between them?

Melissa: That’s a really good question, and we talk a lot about that. In public you don’t typically hear those terms used interchangeably, but they are quite similar. As we think about hunger, we often have this picture in our minds of children with swollen bellies in faraway places. And while we may not face those extreme circumstances here in the United States, we have hunger and food insecurity. When we talk about food insecurity, some families do not have food available to them. They are unsure when and where their next meal is coming from. Hunger is associated with that food insecurity.

Angie: I’m sure there are myths and misunderstandings associated with those living in poverty in the United States. Can you address some of the most common myths?

Melissa: People who use assistance programs like the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, WIC, or SNAP are often misconstrued as lazy or not working. This is not true. In fact, when we look at the statistics in Indiana for the average use of SNAP, the length of participation in that program is around 12 months. Many of the people utilizing SNAP are working, but due to the cost of living, those families still can’t make ends meet. Many organizations in Indiana are investigating the living-wage gap that exists here.

Angie: What does food insecurity look like in Tippecanoe and surrounding counties? In the State of Indiana?

Melissa: When you ask what food insecurity looks like, it probably looks like the student sitting next to you in class or in church, or potentially your neighbor. I think that’s something we should  all take into consideration — that food insecurity could affect people you interact with every day. It’s not in some far-off land. It’s happening right next door.

 From Feeding America: Food banks fed 1.1 million people in Indiana in 2014. A food bank acts as a hub to local food pantries to provide food to communities. Thirty-three percent of the 1.1 million were children; 13 percent were seniors. We can have preconceived notions about who uses these services. Of the people who participated in food-related programs in Indiana in 2014, 18 percent were black, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 71 percent were white. Another statistic that people may find surprising is that 9 percent were college students.

children eating lunch in a school cafeteria

Schoolchildren enjoying their packed lunches in a school cafeteria

What type of circumstances contribute to food insecurity?​

Melissa: A lot of different things, but loss of employment is one of the top contributing life circumstances. It can also be under-employment, as was discussed earlier with the living-wage gap. In addition, medical issues can cause short-term or long-term disability. In Tippecanoe County, for example, each adult in a family needs to earn between $15 and $19 per hour if there is one child in the family. Minimum wage is $10.50 an hour, which is not nearly enough for a family to survive on.

What are some practical steps 4-H youth and families can take to address food insecurity in their local communities?

Melissa: Many of us walk to work and school every day and assume people have the same opportunities as our own. It’s just not the case. I’d encourage people to get to know what’s going on in their community. What are the needs, and what solutions are currently in place that you could get involved with? If you don’t know, reach out to your local NEP staff, or find a food pantry or food bank in your area to learn more.

Angie: Another 4-H Mission Area is 4-H Citizenship. Part of the Citizenship Mission area is helping 4-H members find ways to give back to their communities. Today’s topic lends itself very well to service opportunities for 4-H. Steve McKinley joins us to talk about what Indiana 4-H is doing to “Take a Bite Out of Hunger.” Steve, what can you tell us about this effort?

Steve: For several years we have encouraged our 4-H members and volunteers to think about ways that they can address food insecurity issues across Indiana. Our 4-H Clubs in many counties have joined together to hold food drives, collecting items to be shared with local food banks or food pantries. It has been encouraging to see how 4-H in Indiana has reached out to help meet some of our neighbors’ needs.

​What can 4-H members and volunteers do in the coming year related to hunger issues?

Steve: First, listening to a podcast such as this provides a much greater understanding of the need that exists in Indiana and in our specific communities. Once this awareness has been raised, I encourage our 4-H members and volunteers to further explore the food insecurity issues in their local communities. What is the extent of this problem? What is currently being done to address the problem? And what can we do individually, or better yet, as a group, to help bridge the gap? Our 4-H groups will then be able to brainstorm ways they can help address this issue.

Are there individuals in the community that these 4-H groups should talk to when they are looking for ways to help?​

Steve: Earlier, Melissa mentioned the SNAP program offered through Purdue Extension. One of the first contacts I would make is with the Health and Human Sciences Educator in your local Purdue County Extension Office. The HHS Educator may already have some programs in place, and/or the Educator may be able to direct you to some other resources and contacts in the community. While you are in the Extension office, I would also talk with the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator. Often the ANR Educator works with the local Master Gardener program. Master Gardeners are experts when it comes to growing produce. Perhaps you could work with them to start or enhance an existing community garden. Produce from this garden could be given to families in need in the local communities.

appleAny other suggestions for groups who want to Take a Bite Out Of Hunger?

Steve: I would encourage our 4-H groups to think creatively. What can we do together to meet the needs that we know exist in our community related to food insecurity? How can we challenge other 4-H groups or other groups of youth in our community to come on board? Who might we want to partner with? Are the schools interested in starting a backpack program? Is a local farmer willing to set aside part of his crop or his land to contribute to this effort? Maybe one county would like to develop a fun contest with another county to see who can raise the most funds or receive the most food donations. The possibilities are many, and I know our 4-H family is a very creative one!​

Indiana 4-H Citizenship has its own Facebook page (@Indiana4HCitizenship) where we encourage our 4-H groups to share the various ways they’re serving their communities. As you develop activities and take action on them, please share what you are doing. We look forward to seeing photos of your events or activities, and we always like to see members. This type of sharing can encourage all of us, and better yet, an idea from one part of the state can often be shared in other parts of the state! I’d like to thank our 4-H members and 4-H volunteers in advance for all they will be doing to help Indiana 4-H Take a Bite Out of Hunger!

If you are interested in more resources, contact Angie Frost at Visit the Indiana 4-H Facebook page (@Indiana4H), and tell us how you make a difference in your community. Don’t forget to “Pledge your health to better living” by getting involved in your community!

Angie Frost is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension and registered dietitian. She leads a team of county Purdue Extension staff, and collaborates with campus specialists and faculty to provide opportunities for Indiana 4-H youth to learn about healthy living.

Melissa Maulding is a registered dietitian and director of the Nutritional Education Program for Purdue University.

Steve McKinley is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension who guides programming in the areas of Leadership and Volunteerism. His efforts support special programs such as Global Gateway – Heifer International, Indiana State Fair Youth Leadership Conference, and State 4-H Junior Leader Conference.

Arin Weidner is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension. She supports Indiana 4-H programming by creating technology-facilitated curriculum and learning opportunities. She collaborates with Purdue Extension staff and faculty to develop new ideas for learning in 4-H for youth and adults.​