We've known for some time that hunger is an issue in Kern County. The irony has been duly noted: The Central Valley, whose fertile soil produces so much of America's food, struggles with hunger every day, and in every community. But it was still shocking to learn that Kern County holds the top position in the U.S. for "food hardship," according to the Food Hardship in America 2012 report.

Kern, hit hard by the recession, home foreclosure, unemployment and underemployment, seems to have added a new layer to the struggle for daily sustenance -- families that were, until recently, considered middle-income. Add those already at or below the poverty line and the staggering numbers start to make sense.

Kern's reported food hardship rate of 26.7 percent -- the share of families reporting difficulty putting food on their tables -- dwarfs the already high national average of 18.2 percent.

Nearly half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty." Today, it seems unrealistic to call on government alone to remedy such ills. Help for those in need would be more effective coming from their neighbors, right here in Kern County.

If we are the generous, compassionate people we pride ourselves in being, we must act. Service groups, youth organizations, churches, schools and businesses -- in sufficient numbers -- can put a dent in Kern's food hardship problem by identifying local food banks, such as the Golden Empire Gleaners, and making pledges to help them on a consistent basis. Ask your organization's leaders about it today.

Kern County's issues with food hardship run deeper than this, of course. A massive food drive, no matter how sincere or prolonged, won't get to the core of the problem: poverty.

Poverty is a multi-generational issue that we can turn around only by changing our culture as it applies to educational attainment, economic diversity, family stability and a whole host of other markers.

But we can help put food on the table here and now, and that's something. Anyone who doubts that need only look into the face of a hungry child. There's one (or more) of them in the majority of Kern County classrooms.