Bags of change

(Image from Wikimedia)

(Image from Wikimedia)

In the 1930s, nearly everyone was suffering or hungry. The Great Depression took a toll on most families. Poverty was rampant. Soup lines were common. Individuals down on their luck would often knock on doors and ask for small jobs in exchange for a hot meal. More often than not, there was a job to be had — and a meal. While the suffering felt universal, so was the sharing.

The kind of pervasive hunger of the depression era is history — most of us presume. But while such hunger and need is less apparent, it is not gone. Instead, today, it is often hidden — and often cyclical.

In an opinion piece earlier this month in the New York Times, Mark R. Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University, wrote:

Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty is exceedingly high. My research indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period ($23,492 for a family of four), and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty (below 150 percent of the poverty line).

Even more astounding, if we add in related conditions like welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment, four out of five Americans will encounter one or more of these events.

In addition, half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time.

Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when.

But while poverty strikes a majority of the population, the average time most people spend in poverty is relatively short. The standard image of the poor has been that of an entrenched underclass, impoverished for years at a time. While this captures a small and important slice of poverty, it is also a highly misleading picture of its more widespread and dynamic nature…..

The typical pattern is for an individual to experience poverty for a year or two, get above the poverty line for an extended period of time, and then perhaps encounter another spell at some later point. Events like losing a job, having work hours cut back, experiencing a family split or developing a serious medical problem all have the potential to throw households into poverty.

So last week, when I found a paper bag tucked under my Halloween pumpkin, this lesson struck home. The paper bag was an opportunity to make a difference. In fact, few efforts I — or you —  make require such minimal effort for such significant results.

Stapled to the bag was a note from a JMU fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha. Again this year, the fraternity brothers are participating in the Feeding America Food Drive. It is “the largest single day, international philanthropic effort by college students,” according to their flyer. Nationally, the fraternity’s food drive goal is to collect 3 million pounds of food. Chapters at more than 300 universities are participating.

Grocery_bag“The Feeding American campaign is our national fraternity’s philanthropy,” says Harry Mandeles (’14) of Lambda Chi Alpha, “and as long as I have been a brother we have dedicated our philanthropy fundraising and collecting to our local food banks.” Last year, the JMU chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha collected 2000 pounds of food and donated $1000 to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. The food bank, founded in 1981, serves 25 counties and nine cities from Lynchburg to Winchester throughout Western and Central Virginia. Every year, the organization serves 145,600 people through their network of food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, churches and nonprofit groups, according to their website.
Next Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 40 to 50 fraternity brothers will fan out across the city and county to collect bags filled by local citizens between 10 a.m and noon. In addition to collecting food, Harry says, “This coming semester we are starting a campaign within our chapter to send three to five brothers a week to the food bank for volunteering.”

Few ways to Be the Change take so little effort from us when students like the brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha take on the task. They’ve made it easy for us. If you didn’t find a paper bag on your porch and would like to participate, contact Harry Mandeles (’14) at

To learn more about Blue Ridge Area Foodbank, visit their website at


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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