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AmeriCorps volunteers sworn in to fight hunger

By ERIN VANDERBERG
The Associated Press

Forty-eight young adults from around the country vowed to “get things done for America,” as members of a new AmeriCorps VISTA program connecting people to food assistance programs were sworn in Thursday at a City Hall ceremony.

The Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps is the brainchild of Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. It’s a pilot program that will cost $1 million _ $760,000 in federal grants and $280,000 donated from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. _ to fund 48 full-time volunteers at 30 sites in 18 states for a full year.

“Particularly in these tough fiscal times, it’s an extraordinary effective use of tax dollars,” said Berg.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose department oversees the national food assistance programs, said such programs have never been more urgently needed.

“We are living through the Great Recession,” Concannon told the VISTA volunteers during Thursday’s ceremony.

“You, by your service, are helping remind people that in our midst, in this country of plenty, there are millions of people who are struggling,” he said.

The newly-enrolled VISTA volunteers were chosen from a pool of 700 applicants. Most are college graduates, some have graduate degrees.

Ellen Skoczenski, a sociologist from Portland, Maine, will join the staff of Philabundance in Philadelphia. Skoczenski decided to join the program after development work abroad with her university and the group Engineers without Borders.

“I realized through my education and observation that there are a lot of issues going on right here at home,” said Skoczenski.

As for how she will live on the shoestring budget of $10,000 a year in stipends?

“You have to change the way you live your life,” Skoczenski said. “Finding affordable housing is one of the arrangements I’ve made, but for the most part, just using my resources better.”

The volunteers’ main goals will be to enroll eligible people into the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, connect kids on school lunch programs to the school breakfasts they are eligible to receive, and improve community gardens. Other goals will include volunteer recruitment, grant writing and fostering cooperation between community programs. In exchange, they will be paid a small stipend and receive an educational grant when their service is complete.

Jarrid Smith, from the Seminole Indian Reservation in Hollywood, Fla., is assigned to a program at Miami Dade College in Miami, Fla. Smith sees his experience in the VISTA program as a step toward a career as a public servant.

Smith, a Native American, said his own struggles with poverty make it easy for him to relate to those he is helping.

“Reaching out to students who grew up and are going through poverty, from low-income families _ it’s a tremendous experience for me,” he said.

John Lyons, 23, will work for Philadelphia’s Campaign for Working Families, where part of his job will be to connect the community to benefits by use of Solutions for Progress’ software, called Benefit Bank _ a one-stop shopping for benefits.

Before being adopted by American parents, Lyons was a malnourished infant during his first two years of life in Colombia.

“I couldn’t sit up,” Lyons said. “My body wasn’t where it was supposed to be in terms of development.”

Lyons says the training with fellow VISTA Anti-Hunger and Opportunity program participants, which continues through the end of this week, has been a powerful experience.

The food stamp program was relaunched in 1961 as President John F. Kennedy’s first executive order, after his campaigning around the country opened his eyes to American hunger.

The USDA estimates that only three-quarters of Philadelphia’s eligible population receives food stamps, while the figure drops to only one-half of New Jersey’s population. Berg believes the heavy paperwork and social stigma are to blame for these figures.

“Applying for food stamps is far harder than filing your taxes, and most people pay to file their taxes,” he said.

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