Rubin: Helping the hungry at your mailbox

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

It was 9:30 Thursday morning at the Gleaners warehouse in Detroit, and Fox 2’s Roop Raj was eating a metaphor.

Fox 2’s Roop Raj uses a peanut butter cracker to illustrate a point about hunger.

The metaphor came in the form of a peanut butter cracker, one of six from a cellophane pack. The cracker only weighed a fraction of an ounce, but it stood for hunger, despair and more than a million pounds of food that southeast Michigan letter carriers hope to find Saturday at mailboxes very much like yours.

Working the extremely early shift, Raj had been awake for more than five hours. “I was sitting in our news van,” he was saying, and it struck him that “I’m hungry.”

Raj was covering and also speaking at the kickoff rally for the annual Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger food drive, which in 24 years has collected more than 1.4 billion pounds of sustenance nationwide for otherwise famished people. In a few minutes, 60 or 70 postal trucks would come rolling up Beaufait in Detroit, horns blaring, announcing that the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) and its allies were once again on patrol.

At the moment, Beaufait was unimpeded, so Raj left the van and crossed the street. “I got to come in here and eat a snack,” he said, and the significance did not escape him:

“For some people, that thought ends at, ‘I’m hungry.’ ”

More than 50 postal trucks, horns blaring, formed a convoy from NALC Branch 1 on Trumbull to the Gleaners Community Food Bank warehouse on Beaufait to kick off the annual letter carriers food drive.

Across these bountiful United States, an estimated 49 million people are classified as “food insecure,” meaning they’re not certain where their next meal will come from or if it will at all. Some 16 million of those people are children.

Saturday’s food drive won’t solve the problem, but it will buoy a lot of people for at least a little while, and the hope is that it will inspire some of us to keep helping.

The process is simple: Put some non-perishable food items in a bag or box and set it near the spot where your mail is delivered. No glass, please, and no cans of green beans that expired in 2011. Your letter carrier and a throng of other volunteers will do the rest.

“If we all put a can of food out,” Raj said, “is that taxing us?”

It was a rhetorical question, to go with the metaphorical cracker.

A million full plates

Generous postal patrons in southeast Michigan donated 1.1 million pounds of food in last year’s drive.

Subtract the weight of the packaging, consider that one pound of food is considered an adult meal, factor in the number of children among the consumers, tap a few more keys on the calculator and that’s basically a million full plates, says Gleaners Community Food Bank president Gerry Brisson.

Once the food leaves the mailbox, it’s a labor-intensive process. Letter carriers haul it to post offices, Teamster volunteers truck it from there to food banks in the counties where it’s collected, other volunteers sort it, and more truck drivers haul it to the pantries where everyone’s neighbors can pick it up.

Asking for checks might be simpler, and they’re certainly easier to transport, but there’s a different sense of involvement in actually packing cans and boxes into a sack and carrying it outside.

“When you draw attention to what people can do by giving food,” Brisson says, “you’re affirming people’s desire to make a difference in a way that works for them. Sometimes that first gift feels so good, people keep giving.”

A million reminders

They are 40 percent more likely to give, the letter carriers group has found, if they receive a reminder in the mail attached to a grocery bag.

Volunteers stapled 1 million cards to bags for Metro Detroit homes, and if you have yours sitting on the kitchen counter, don’t forget to set it out Saturday morning. If you didn’t receive a bag, feel free to supply your own. Or use a carton, or if you truly want to dazzle your letter carrier, fill a refrigerator box.

Raj says he will be doing some serious lugging, if not quite at the refrigerator-box level.

He can’t make one gesture to fix broken schools. He can’t cure someone’s serious illness. But hunger?

“You can have an impact,” he says — one metaphorical cracker at a time.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn