Hunger wears many faces. It could be that of a homeless man or woman standing on a street corner, holding a crude cardboard sign that says, “Will work for food.”

But it could also be the face of a senior whose retirement income no longer covers the costs of necessities.

It could be the face of a child whose parents are stuck in minimum-wage jobs that do not pay enough to provide adequate food for their family.

Hunger in early 21st-century America means more than not having enough to eat. It means there are at least 50 million Americans — one in six of us — who are food insecure. They live with the uncertainty of not having enough safe, nutritious food to eat, or have uncertainty about their ability to obtain it.

Gertrude Stein observed that Americans “are brought up to believe in boundlessness.” We live in the richest country on Earth. In 2012, American farms exported $136 billion in agricultural products. How could anyone be food insecure amid all this abundance?

Yet it exists, and not in Appalachia or a downtrodden urban area. It is moving into the suburbs. A recent study shows the number of U.S. suburban residents who lived below the poverty level increased by 64 percent in 2010-11. Poverty, along with its inevitable companion, hunger, is no longer an inner-city problem. It has moved outward, into suburbia, for so long thought to be the place Americans went to escape the city. As Joe Louis said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

To see the face of hunger, you need look no further than our Central Coast.

“We serve between 40,000 and 44,000 people a month,” said Carl Hansen of the Foodbank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, an organization that makes food available to low-income people. Working in partnership with other nonprofit agencies, last year the San Luis Obispo Foodbank distributed 5.5 million pounds of food to people in need, 48 percent of which was fresh produce, for along with providing food, local food banks also provide education to help people make healthy food choices.

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Eric Talkin, of the Santa Barbara County Foodbank, emphasizes this also, pointing out that by providing healthy food, groups like his fight the diseases that come with food insecurity like obesity, diabetes and heart disease — the effects of which end up costing much more to treat than to prevent. He estimates his group helps over 100,000 people each year in Santa Barbara County. One in four persons in Santa Barbara County receives food assistance, according to their website, and 44 percent of these are children.

These are not homeless people who live under bridges or sleep on park benches. In fact, the homeless make up no more than 10 percent of those who come seeking help. More than half of the people served by the foodbanks have jobs that do not pay enough to cover all the necessities of life, such as enough good food to eat.

But the services the food banks provide are not popular everywhere. A conservative think tank recently concluded that programs designed to help alleviate hunger “discourage work, reward idleness and promote long-term dependence,” assertions that Carl Hansen disagrees with. “People want to get back on their feet,” he said.

As the economic recovery continues at a snail’s pace, it is important to remember that many of our fellow citizens will need help as they attempt to pull themselves out of poverty. Fortunately, assistance is close by.

Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, California Federation of Teachers Local 6185. He can be reached at sunrune@charter.net.

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