When a top student told Professor Samuel Torvend she would have to turn a paper in late, he was surprised. Her reasons shocked him.
The student, a young mother, told Torvend her husband lost his job, they couldn’t pay their mortgage and she had turned to a food bank to feed her family.
But it’s rarely spoken of because of the shame people feel at needing help. And it’s usually churches that help the often-silent hungry. Torvend, a religion professor who has always been interested in the history of Jews and Christians as “meal-keeping people” and has written and taught about hunger, decided to research the extent of hunger in Pierce County and how religious and humanitarian organizations are helping.
He and Matthew Tabor ’05 received the first Kelmer Roe Research Fellowship in the humanities for student-faculty research. They studied the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition and how churches respond. They believe it’s the first time such a project has been done.
The pair assumed religious and humanitarian groups were the primary providers of food for the hungry.
“We had no idea how vast this network is,” Torvend said.
They interviewed dozens of people at area resources and found that in addition to food banks, groups offer hot meal sites and delivery, operate farms and a cannery and organize fund-raisers like hunger walks.
And while the resources are deep, the need is growing, Torvend said. He said research shows many people receiving help from food banks are working families – many working more than one job – who still can’t afford groceries. The other common users are the elderly, the mentally ill and military dependents. Many family budgets are squeezed tight when a soldier is called up to active duty or deployed.
And still, the majority of society doesn’t realize the breadth of the problem, even as the gap between the richest and poorest Americans continues to widen, Torvend said.
“When we speak with groups about the alarming increase in food insecurity in Western Washington, we are usually met with initial disbelief,” Torvend’s report said. “No one hears about it. This reality is invisible to most people.”
Tabor looked through four years of regional newspapers for articles about the hungry and found only a few examples. The pair also discovered that even the churches that are reaching out could do a better job of raising awareness of the problems in their own communities.
Tabor, who hopes to attend law school next year and work on social justice issues, also helped create the profile of hunger in Western Washington and established a network of alumni who work in hunger relief agencies.
“I feel very privileged to have been involved in a project that has brought together the PLU community and those in the outside community who are in the most need,” Tabor said. “A major bridge has been built between the sometimes exclusive Lutedome and those working for dramatic change in the lives of the hungry.”
Torvend is writing “The Origins of Christian Public Services in Early Christianity,” the second in a projected series of five books. The first book, “Daily Bread, Holy Meal,” a popular work intended for a lay audience, examines the ethical dimensions of Jewish and Christian meal practices.
Along with the data they gathered, Torvend said he has learned “how easy it is to find yourself in a miserable situation.” His next research phase will look at the causes of hunger and poverty.
“In the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, we have the highest incidence of hunger and poverty,” Torvend said. “Why can’t we figure this out?”
Photo Above: From left, Naomi Naomi (Roe ’53) and Don ’50 and Nothstein, Matt Tabor '05, Professor Samuel Torvend.
“My dad would be very pleased,” Naomi said.
They like the collaborative nature of student-faculty research, because Roe was close to his students, she said, and he and his wife, Hannah, often invited students and former students to their home near PLU.