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THE HUNGRY DESERVE NATION'S COMPASSION AND GENEROSITY

Many of us will gather on Thursday with families and friends to celebrate the values of generosity, compassion and cooperation that make Thanksgiving a unique holiday.

We've been hearing a lot about values. During the campaign, the Republican Party touted itself as the only party to hold values many of us thought we all shared. But what are these so-called "family values" worth without the generosity, compassion and cooperation that are the foundation of most faith traditions?

Let's look at the record. The United States lost more than 2 million jobs from 2000 to 2003. While some of those jobs have been replaced, today unemployment persists at 5.4 percent. Those jobs that have been created generally pay one-third less than the jobs they replaced and actually helped to push people into poverty.

All of this translates into more hunger. Households with at least one working member are the fastest-growing group needing emergency food aid and now are 39 percent of all those seeking food aid. More than 33 million Americans -- 13 million of them children -- are food insecure, meaning that at one time or another over the past year, they didn't know where their next meal would come from.

What has the Bush administration done about all this? In the last four years, it has torn apart the social safety net by cutting housing, food and health programs. Instead it promotes individual initiative and a reliance on private charities. People who are hungry have, of necessity, turned to emergency food pantries.

Food pantries are intended to help those with emergency needs. They were never meant to replace the social safety net. More important, food banks and food pantries can never solve the root cause of hunger because they simply don't address it. Poverty, not lack of food, is why hunger exists in the United States, as elsewhere. In fact, our reliance on emergency food aid may inadvertently help sustain hunger as people get stuck in a cycle of dependency. There clearly needs to be a change.

And this offers values-oriented Republicans an opportunity to put their words into action. All they need to do is look to communities that have acted on their own to fight hunger and food insecurity.

In Oakland, Calif., neighborhood activists started the People's Grocery, a community garden and mobile store that provides nutritious, affordable food to the community and an educational experience for neighborhood youth. It's not enough, but it does give people new skills and knowledge, fresh organic produce and no small amount of dignity.

Creative solutions such as this are springing up in Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, Olympia, Wash., and Hawaii. Trouble is, they have little money to expand.

These are initiatives that deserve our help. Perhaps as President Bush sits at his own Thanksgiving table, he will offer a prayer to the hungry, the disadvantaged and needy, then find within his administration the generosity, compassion and cooperation to support these people who are supporting each other.

Nick Parker works at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, a food policy think tank in Oakland, Calif.

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