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Hunger not easily seen in Berkeley

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Tuesday November 13, 2001

There’s hunger in Berkeley. 

It’s not like the TV images of stunted, starving children with bloated bellies and red-cast hair in third-world countries.  

It’s less dramatic – in fact, “invisible” – says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland-based Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy. 

When a person making minimum wage, or living on a $630 welfare grant gets to the last week of the month, having paid the PG&E bill and a hefty Berkeley rent, there may be no money left for food for the family.  

“The last week of the month gets tough,” says boona cheema, executive director of Berkeley’s Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency, which, along with Food First, is kicking off National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, by staging a community gathering in front of Old City Hall this evening. 

The event, 5 - 10 p.m., at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, will feature speeches – both thanking the City Council for its work and asking for more – as well as music and food. 

Homelessness is another concern that the gathering will address. “There’s been five years since additional shelter beds have been added,” said cheema, noting in an interview on Monday, that rain was coming down steadily. “We’re always calling for more shelter beds.” 

But the real answer is not in shelter space. “In the long term, we need to build more housing for the very poor,” she said. 

Not enough is known about hunger in Berkeley, cheema said, citing Food First statistics that say hunger has risen 50 percent since 1985 and that 36 million people in the nation suffer from hunger daily. 

One statistic that stands out, however, is that the free food pantry has only enough groceries for about 30 percent of the people who want them. 

Children of school age, get a balanced lunch, but cheema says the city should extend a free meals program to children too young to be in school. 

Mittal says the solution is not complicated. Government policies “should respect the right to food.” 

It is as basic as making sure people earn a living wage, so they don’t have to make a choice between having a roof over their heads and buying food, she said. 

“Change has to happen in our own backyard.”