31 million people in 10 million households face hunger every day.

It just doesn't seem right. Hunger exists even in the very communities that produce wholesome food for the United States and consumers around the world. According to USDA statistics, 31 million people in 10 million households face hunger every day. Termed “food insecurity,” it means these people worry that they will run out of food before they get money to buy more. They fear the food they buy will not last. And they can't afford to eat balanced meals.

For many members of the food-producing community, these facts are more than troubling. They are a challenge to be met in a variety of ways.

Martha Pickett, vice president of operations and COO of America's Second Harvest, the largest network of hunger-relief charities in the country, says one of her predecessor's slogans — We need food, folks and funds — still applies.

George Wooten meets these needs in a very big way. The sweet-potato grower, processor, packer, shipper and broker headquartered in Chadbourn, N.C., has contributed 1.6 million pounds of vitamin-rich tubers over the last five years, placing him among Second Harvest's top five contributors by volume.

“I'm motivated from a spiritual standpoint to work with Second Harvest,” he says. “I have been blessed, and there is a need out there. Second Harvest is effectively sustaining life and helping people. Last year, I was able to provide a steady enough supply that food shelves were stocked year-round with sweet potatoes — even at Thanksgiving.”

Representing the third generation at the helm of the 66-year-old, family-owned Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company, Wooten says the company has carved a niche in the U.S. market. “We are a premier provider of sweet potatoes, year-round and on time. Our main outlet is with the major retail food chains. But our company has also helped the industry open a whole new avenue for marketing through food service. Currently, 20 percent of our market is with food service outlets.”

America's abundance of food produces needless waste, Wooten observes. “With sweet potatoes, for instance, there is so much product that's valuable but unmarketable. We (Americans) have become so particular about the produce that we will buy and eat that marginal-looking products are unsalable. But people in need can look beyond a blemish or two and appreciate the food value that's there.”

Collecting food that would otherwise go unused and distributing it to hungry people is the principle that guides America's Second Harvest, says Pickett. And farmers, from large-scale producers like Wooten to those with smaller-scale operations, see the need and become involved in alleviating hunger.

Thanks to the organization's broad base of volunteers, for every dollar that's donated, America's Second Harvest can distribute more than 30 pounds of food. This effort has also prompted a great deal of corporate involvement. One recent example is the Syngenta Rural FoodShare Initiative announced by Syngenta, the new agribusiness formed by the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals. With the goal of helping to alleviate -rural hunger, the company announced it would donate $500,000 in 2001 to America's Second Harvest and the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

Locally, Pickett says, “Many farmers allow volunteers to come in after a field is harvested to gather the ‘second harvest.’ Others plant an extra acre and donate the crop from that land to a local food bank. Many farmers volunteer their time and energy sorting and packing food products at local food banks or serving in soup kitchens. And others donate money or help in local fund-raising events.

“The challenge we face is huge, and it belongs to everyone from corporations to individuals,” she says. “Donations of all sizes and kinds are making a significant difference.”

For more information about joining the fight to alleviate rural hunger, visit www.secondharvest.org or call 800-771-2303 during business hours. For more information on the Syngenta Rural FoodShare initiative, visit www.syngentaruralfoodshare.com.