Each year around this time, we make an effort to heighten awareness about hunger in our community and to raise funds to replenish the shelves at our food pantries and soup kitchens.

"Feeding our Neighbors" is a statewide effort that is running now throughout February -- the time when food supplies at our soup kitchens and food pantries are at their lowest.

Last year, I shared a story of personal experience I had some 15 years ago, when my friend, Bill, asked me to accompany him on a long-awaited visit to his birth father and wife, who had relocated from the East Coast to Las Vegas, Nev. Although Bill had been looking forward to it for many years, he knew it was going to be emotionally very difficult for a number of reasons. His dad and his dad's wife are severely hearing impaired.

We had arrived past midnight (our plane was late), but Bill's dad was there to escort us to our rental. He himself had come by public transportation. We arranged a midday visit to the couple's apartment the next day.

All seemed to be going quite smoothly after we got there, a little tired after a short night. Hugs and tears were exchanged and everyone seemed relaxed -- until the subject of lunch came up. Bill and I had thought it convenient that we all go out to a local diner, a reasonable food option in that city. What was to ensue almost broke my heart.

We could see immediately that the suggestion brought extreme distress to the wife of my friend's dad. She clearly needed to be with him privately for a moment and excused herself to speak with him.

I asked my friend what was wrong. It took a little doing, but when communication was finally sorted out, my friend and I were invited to have spaghetti with Ragú sauce right in the couple's apartment. They had wanted to treat us for coming to see them, but they were on a fixed income and did not have the funds to do more; nor did they want to depend on us to pick up their tab.

I came to learn that many folks similarly situated gravitated to Las Vegas for its low food costs and -- at least at that time -- reasonable housing options. The couple seemed to have a clean and comfortable apartment space. Little did I realize, at the time, how people could manage to keep up appearances while suffering such serious challenges -- even deprivation of one of life's essentials, food itself. And who would know?

I should have known better. Growing up in Ridgewood in the 1950s, after the war, I had heard many stories of the hardships of families I knew in our relatively stable, working-class neighborhood, which accommodated many immigrants.

My grandmother's best friend, Rose, an Italian immigrant woman from Naples, had nothing to feed her large family with one Easter Sunday in the late '40s but plain boiled macaroni. As a child, I could hardly imagine this, never having to worry about whether there would be food on the table, even though restaurants and even diners were never a part of my experience growing up.

People do not talk to their neighbors about hunger issues in their homes. But they were there in the '50s when I was a kid, and in the '90s when I visited my friend's dad -- and are still here in our own communities today.

In the 14 counties of our Diocese, 159,000 people are living below the poverty line. One in six New Yorkers are "food insecure." That means they may not know where their next meal is coming from. They may well skip meals periodically or have to ration food to their kids.

In the city of Albany alone, 43 percent of our children live below the poverty line. They are our neighbors. They need our help. Like most Americans, we are more than willing to be generous in assisting them. But they will rarely be asking us directly, for reasons we can all understand. It's downright embarrassing to ask a neighbor for something to eat, even for one's children.

Fortunately, there is a way to help and we can do it right now: by contributing to Catholic Charities' annual "Feeding our Neighbors" campaign.

Catholic Charities and the parishes of the Diocese of Albany operate and support 53 food pantries: nine through Catholic Charities and 45 run by the parishes. These are operated with the generous gifts of time and labor by hundreds of volunteers.

Last year, more than 30,000 people sought help from food programs of Catholic Charities. These are often hard-working adults, children and seniors who simply cannot always make ends meet and may be forced to go without food. All who seek assistance receive help, regardless of their race, religious affiliation, ethnicity or lifestyle choice.

Sponsored and managed by Catholic Charities, 100 percent of the contributions to this year's Feeding our Neighbors campaign will support local food pantries that serve non-Catholics and Catholics alike.

How can you help? If you have not yet come across an insert in a local newspaper or bulletin or received notice through one of our schools, just go online at www.ccrcda.org. There, you can get much more information about "Feeding our Neighbors" and the many other ways in which Catholic Charities has been serving persons throughout our Diocese for 100 years. You can also call Catholic Charities at 518-453-6650. Even a small gift goes a long way.

Our community partners, like the Northeast Regional Food Bank and the Food Pantries for the Capital District, help us meet our mission by providing low-cost food to pantries and feeding programs. Programs like the Sister Maureen Joyce Center in Albany's West Hill neighborhood and St. John's/St. Ann's Center in the city's South End are life-sustaining for the community.

Remember that hunger can have a particularly negative impact on children. Poor school performance and impaired physical development, including stunted growth, are often the outcomes. But you can make a difference. You may never see the child your gift will feed, but our Lord will surely know, and will thank you for feeding Him! (Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)