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HELENA - Hunger is part of the larger overall problem of poverty, and food banks alone can't solve it.

"Overall, the general population, I think, has the belief that emergency food can solve the problem of poverty," said Minkie Medora, chair of the Food Security Council of the Montana Food Bank Network. "The food banks and Food Bank Network cannot take the full impact of what's going on. This is a huge issue, and emergency food alone cannot take the fallout of all of this. Hungry people need something more sustainable in solutions."

There are a number of very good public food-assistance programs, she said.

Medora cited school lunch and breakfast programs; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and

Children, better known as the WIC program; and Adult Care Food Program.

"There's a lot that can be done if these programs are available to more people," Medora said.

She said it would be important "if some of the energy that exists in donating food could be channeled into promoting these programs and getting (people) enrolled or getting them started in their programs."

Medora holds out optimism that steps can be taken to reduce poverty in Montana and nationally.

"When things are really down and bad, that's when changes occur," she said. "The status quo is not working in solving the problem of hunger."

People have not had the structure in place to get out of poverty, she said, and domestic programs have been cut.

"These people have been stuck in a certain spot for a long time or have not been able to leave," she said. The working poor "make nickels and dimes in raises."

Here are some of Medora's recommendations for helping to fight poverty and reduce hunger:

• Congress must pass an economic stimulus program early next year that includes a temporary increase in food stamps, which will be spent immediately.

• The federal government must support and strengthen what Medora calls "the national nutrition safety net."

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• Montana needs a state earned-income tax credit to help the working poor, just as the federal government passed one more than three decades ago. One will be introduced in the 2009 Legislature.

• Montana must ensure that school breakfast programs exist in all schools, along with the national school lunch program. It should provide support to start new breakfast programs and summer food service programs for children, including providing transportation.

• The state should promote greater participation in SNAP through more outreach and education.

• The state should work with employers to create a stronger work force by improving wages of the working poor to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

• Nonprofit groups must increase public awareness of the impact of hunger on health, family structure and the ability of children to succeed in schools. They need to work with state agencies to support and promote access to public programs locally.

• Individuals should urge federal and state policymakers to create long-term solutions to hunger by improving and expanding federal food and nutrition programs. They should raise awareness of poverty and hunger through their ties with community groups, churches and schools.

Medora summed it up by saying that Montanans should help others understand that poverty and hunger aren't choices that people willingly make.

She urged Montanans to think about hunger as an issue "instead of just telling people where the emergency food pantry is."

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