The hungry can't eat red tape
Father Dennis Berry is a Catholic priest on a mission. He is committed to feeding the poor and hungry people of Hurtsboro -- an Alabama community on the western edge of Russell County where a third of the population falls below the poverty line.
Berry is the pastor of St. Joseph Parish and, with the help of thoughtful volunteers, operates the St. John XXIII Center. Every month it provides 70 pounds of food to 170 families whose annual incomes average less than $10,000 a year.
Joining 23 other charitable and faith-based agencies, they serve around 25,000 hungry people in Russell County. Until recently, they worked under the Food Bank of East Alabama in Auburn, Ala.
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Food banks provide non-perishable products donated by companies such as Wal-Mart or Publix along with meats, dairy products and fresh vegetables from the United States Department of Agriculture when they're available.
That efficient process changed in 2013. The Russell County programs were notified they could no longer access commodity items at the East Alabama Food Bank. They had to come to Columbus and shop with the Feeding the Valley Food Bank, an agency that serves Muscogee and 12 other Georgia counties.
Counties in Georgia do full-service shopping at Feeding the Valley. Russell County must go to East Alabama to obtain USDA items that by law can't be carried across state lines.
"They were fixing something that wasn't broken," Berry said, referring to an agreement between Feeding the Valley and Feeding America, a Chicago-based organization that oversees 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries nationwide.
That contract was news to Russell County folks, who had no input into the discussion. It forced them to do business at two food banks in two states and increased expenses by around $5,000 a year in Hurtsboro alone.
"We want them to give the people on the ground the choice of where they want to do business," Berry said. "Let us decide."
It does not have to be this way, the priest said. Feeding America allows numerous counties that border other states to decide for themselves which food bank provides the most cost-effective services.
"In the present arrangement, the people of Alabama are being treated as second-class citizens," Berry said.
Bureaucrats may be happy, but in Russell County fewer poor people are being fed.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906 @knology.net.