The starving people of the world do not all live in famine stricken countries overseas. Today the hungry live in nice suburban houses with two-car garages. They are the elderly who had high incomes, but who might not be able to get around and buy food like they used to. They are the obese children who eat one meal a day of two big macs and a large fries because their parents have no time to prepare good food for them. They are the families who eat cheap pasta for every meal because fruit and vegetables at the local bodega are too expensive.
They could even be people who are middle class by all outward appearances, but who are struggling to keep the refrigerator full because of a lost job or had a reduction in income. That’s why even in a relatively prosperous community, food banks are all that stand between some people and starvation.
“Hunger is a very local problem,” says Debra Vizzi, the director of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. “Food insecurity manifests itself in different ways in different communities.” The Community FoodBank, based in Hillside, is a statewide nonprofit group that is the main source of food provided to many local food banks, including the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank.
Vizzi will speak at a meeting of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, February 17, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. Tickets are $40; $25 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Vizzi, who took the helm of the food bank in September, knows firsthand what it’s like to deal with food insecurity. She grew up in the foster care system in the Bronx, which is the poorest urban county in the U.S. She was given up for adoption at birth and was in traditional foster care until age 12. She moved into a group home for adolescents, and then aged out of the system at 17.
“There was one foster home where the father was in the hospital for a very long period of time,” Vizzi says. “That was a really tough situation for me. Another time, I was living in a shelter. Most of my meals were at school. I was ashamed, and I didn’t want to ask for help.”
Vizzi went to college and then earned a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers, becoming a licensed clinical social worker. “I became a social worker because they were my moms and dads when I was growing up,” she said. “My family was social workers. Those were the people who came to visit me in foster homes. They were the people who helped me in the shelter, and who worked with me while I was in a group home. They were my protectors, and they were the people I looked up to.”
Vizzi credits a mentor in high school with giving her the encouragement she needed to go to college and begin a career of helping others.
Because she’s been through it, Vizzi understands the reasons that hungry people don’t always get the help they need. They don’t ask for it because of the stigma, or they don’t know it’s even available.
“Even for the poor, there is a stigma to going to a pantry line and waiting for food and all those kinds of things,” she said. The same applies to families of means who suddenly lose their means. Illness, eating disorders, or addiction can all send a formerly prosperous family or person into a situation of food insecurity.
One point that Vizzi likes to drive home is that hunger is a lack of nourishment, not necessarily a lack of calories. Because carb-heavy foods like pasta are cheap, struggling families often put them on the table instead of meat or vegetables. Fast food dollar menu items are another source of affordable but non-nutritious food for hungry children. As a result, children suffer food-related health problems even though they are getting enough calories to survive. Vizzi calls cheap, unhealthy foods “sugar highways.”
“You have a child 12 years old and near 200 pounds and meanwhile, they’re starving,” Vizzi said. That obesity could bring about diabetes and other health problems.
Vizzi said the food bank is changing its tactics to meet the modern problems of food insecurity and hunger, and has taken steps to address the unique needs of various populations. For example, the bank provides Ensure supplements to anorexic clients. They have begun a number of programs to get around the food line stigma and deliver food to families in need, such as mobile pantries, and giving children backpacks full of food to take home on the weekends.
The food bank today distributes 43 million pounds of food a year, feeding 900,000 people throughout the state. About 40,000 people volunteered to work for the food bank and its partner organizations last year. Yet Vizzi believes the work of her group often goes unnoticed, since it is usually behind the scenes providing the food that other groups distribute. She said the group always needed volunteers.
“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know the work of the food bank, and I think we’re New Jersey’s best kept secret,” Vizzi said.