The story is pretty much the same no matter where you go. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a rural farming community or a large city .. people are going hungry. Caught in a recession not of their making, more Americans than ever before are tightening their belts, cutting back on all but the most essential of items, and then finding out they need food they can’t afford.
Many families today are just one paycheck away from being homeless. It’s a scary scenario happening all around us. Here we are ” the land of opportunity ” and growing numbers of our population are going to bed hungry. As a result, more and more Americans are learning a lot more about food banks, soup kitchens and community cafeterias than most of them ever wanted to know.
Unfortunately, the food banks are facing similar issues. Like their Wall Street counterparts, these banks need a bailout, too. The organizations established to help the disadvantaged are now facing their own crisis. Non-profits have been dealt a double blow, thanks to the recession. Funding is shrinking just as soaring numbers of people are turning to social service agencies for help. With corporations, foundations, individuals and governments donating less, there’s a ripple effect. Fewer dollars means not only less food to give out, but also the possibility of layoffs. Some of their own staffers may find themselves in the food line.
The assortment of agencies and organizations that supply nourishing meals to the needy all agree that the recent surge in numbers is alarming and spiking in ways that none of them can recall. Lines at food pantries are growing longer and those in line are younger and more middle class, leading them to believe that this recession is hitting a lot harder than people realize.
Whether it’s California, New York, Arizona, Ohio or Illinois .. there’s a growing desperation as food supplies dwindle.
How can this be happening in the land of opportunity?
Nationwide, food banks are seeing a 30% increase in demand over last year, according to Feeding America the biggest hunger relief association in the country. Feeding America has more than 200 food banks and distributes more than two billion pounds of donated products through contacts with approximately 63,000 local charitable agencies that hand out food directly to Americans in need.
Some of the Players
Nonprofits are hurting in every area of the country. On any given day, there are several stories posted online about food pantries going bare, while patrons increase in number. In the southwest, the Association of Arizona Food Banks said its members saw an almost 50% increase in people seeking food in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with a year earlier. In Mesa, the United Food Bank has been running about two million pounds short of supplying all the food requested this fiscal year. Donna Rodgers, who works there, said they tried to fulfill food orders for some 250 agencies in the surrounding counties. “This year, requests are up 47% from last year”
Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks says there has been a dramatic and sudden swelling of demand over the last six months. Sigler works with 45 food banks throughout the state.
On the east coast, Greenpoint Interfaith Food Team in Brooklyn, New York says attendance at their food shelter has doubled. “We’re seeing a lot of people who do construction work, domestic workers who’ve been laid off and freelancers getting less work. We also see a large number of senior citizens,”says Ann Kansfield, a co-founder of the food agency and co-pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn.
“Hunger doesn’t discriminate, but the face of the hungry is getting younger,”says Stanley Bray of the St. Louis Area Foodbank , which distributes food to more than 500 agencies in Missouri and Illinois. He’s seen an increase in clients, too. Many of them are first-timers. “Typically, those who would have volunteered at the Foodbank are now recipients of food at local pantries,”he said.
But How is it Playing in Peoria?
In Pekin, Illinois, just outside of Peoria, “the number of people turning to the Pekin Township Pantry for help has increased 50 percent,”director Marilyn Orrick said. Every Wednesday the township pantry opens from 9 to 11 a.m. to distribute bags of groceries to needy families. Two years ago, the pantry distributed about 25 bags a week. A year ago it increased to 50, and now about 75 bags are handed out every Wednesday. “It’s very sad,”Orrick said. “The demand is much higher”
The San Diego Food Bank , which distributes groceries to 300 soup kitchens, senior centers, food pantries and other allied nonprofits in the county, saw an unprecedented 76% increase between December 2007 and December 2008. “We’re seeing many more middle class families coming in,”said Chris Carter, a Food Bank representative. He also said that since it takes a couple of months to be approved for food stamps, “a lot of people don’t have a couple of months. They need food immediately, so they come directly to us”
Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, New York at Masbia , the city’s only Kosher soup kitchen, all formalities have fallen by the wayside. While in the past, patrons may have been asked to present a letter of reference from their rabbi or community leader stating they were in need, that is no longer necessary. “We’re very liberal about it,”says Alexander Rappaport, executive director of Masbia, which is Hebrew for satiety. “If someone comes in here, the shame is so great, why put them through more humiliation?”
So while all the food programs are seeing dramatic increases in the numbers of people being served, there has been a correspondingly large drop in funding coming from large corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals. Many companies, on shaky ground themselves, are pulling back on supporting fundraisers, such as golf tournaments, luncheons and dinners. Moreover, outright cash donations are a thing of the past. While some local programs may get day-old food and surplus from local supermarkets, it is hardly enough to feed the numbers that are coming through their doors.
“It doesn’t get any more basic than food,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, a lobbyist who is working both sides of the aisle trying to get more money included in the state budget for Ohio’s desperately poor and hungry. “To allow hunger to exist like this is just plain unconscionable.”