From food bank's chief, insight into hungry U.S.
Escarra left her job as vice president of customer service at Delta Air Lines and took charge of America's Second Harvest in 2006.
The network feeds 25 million people annually through food banks around the country. It distributes 2.2 billion pounds of food, enough to make it comparable to the largest grocery chains in the nation.
Here is what Escarra said at All Faiths Food Bank in an interview about a coming advertising campaign, who she wants to be the next president, and what the economic slump means for those without enough to eat.
Q:How much has demand at food banks increased nationally, and who is visiting them?
ESCARRA:In January we surveyed our 200 food banks and demand was up 20 percent over last year. We're seeing more and more people visiting food banks for the first time because they've lost their jobs or they're not getting raises. They can't afford vegetables or protein, the essentials of a good diet. Most of the people who come to food banks are on food stamps, but those are only $3 per person a day.
Q:On the network's Web site, there is a lot of talk about "food insecurity." What does that mean?
ESCARRA:There are 35 million Americans living without knowing consistently where their next meal will come from. I think that's pretty stunning.
Making the situation all the more critical, food is up year over year 7 or 8 percent, dairy products and meat are up 25 to 30 percent, fuel is up 35 percent year over year.
Q:What do you receive in donations annually and how much do you need?
ESCARRA:We receive $75 million a year and we need about $250 million a year to feed the new demand. Most of our donations are from large manufacturing companies like Kellogg, General Mills. About a quarter of our donations come from the government.
Q:What are you doing to raise awareness?
ESCARRA:This November, we are changing our name to "Feeding America." We've found that "America's Second Harvest" has a lot of strength within the community of people who know what we do, but if you step outside that segment, people don't know that "America's Second Harvest" is a food bank. We're also launching a national advertising campaign through the Ad Council in November.
Q:Do you have a hard time convincing people that there is a hunger problem in this country?
ESCARRA:I think the public in general is not aware that it is so pervasive. Kids don't want to go to school and say, "Last night I had a piece of toast for dinner." Parents don't want to talk about it. Kids don't want to talk about it. Senior citizens really don't want to talk about it because they're proud. Then there is the fact that we've not spoken about it. It's not something America is proud of.
Q:Do you think we're in a recession?
ESCARRA:I think we are definitely in a recession and I haven't seen any indicators that would lead anyone to believe we're going to get out of it anytime soon. We're expecting this to be pretty severe for the next 18 months at least.
Q:Where is the need for food greatest?
ESCARRA:We have a lot of pockets around the country where we're giving people food but we're not giving them enough. Most of these are in rural parts of the country. It's difficult to get trucks in to take food to people.
With the price of fuel being at an all-time high you might be able to get the food but then you can't get the money for the transportation.
Q:What do you think it would take to solve the problem of hunger in America?
ESCARRA:I think it will take a lot of very strong leadership by the new president, who makes it a priority to address not only hunger in America, but also the issue of poverty. When you look at what happened in England five years ago, Tony Blair made it a priority and they substantially reduced childhood hunger in three to five years.
Q:Which president do you think would be best to solve the problem?
ESCARRA:We need to balance how we spread the wealth in this county. Sen. Obama has done a lot, before he ran for president, with our food banks. The reality is, we live in a country where wealthy people are getting wealthier and the tax breaks that were put in place by the Bush administration really need to be reviewed.