Demand for food grows with rising poverty

We should call it what it is — America’s shame.

A new Hunger in America 2010 report shows that 37 million people — one in eight — receive emergency food each year through the nation’s network of food banks and the agencies they serve.

The hungry include 14 million children and nearly 3 million senior citizens. In a nation of unprecedented wealth, this is a national shame.

The landmark study on hunger was released this month by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

According to Feeding America officials, the number of hungry Americans is up 46 percent from the last study in 2006 — a clear indication of the effect of the national recession on the working poor and those living in poverty. Nationally, one in six Americans struggle to put food on their table. Almost one in five households across Washington state reported they didn’t have enough money to buy the food they needed in 2009. Families with kids are hurting even more, with 23 percent saying they struggled to put food on their tables, according to a new report released by the Food Research and Action Center.

“Clearly, the economic recession, resulting in dramatically increasing unemployment nationwide, has driven unprecedented, sharp increases in the need for emergency food assistance and enrollment in federal nutrition programs,” said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America. “Hunger in America 2010 exposes the absolutely tragic reality of just how many people in our nation don’t have enough to eat. Millions of our clients are families with children finding themselves in need of food assistance for the very first time.”

That’s the case in Thurston County, too, said Robert Coit, executive director of the Thurston County Food Bank.

He said the number of families seeking assistance last year was up, but the most dramatic increase came in the number of client visits, which shot up from 99,000 in 2008 to 130,000 visits in 2009.

People are using the food bank more frequently, Coit said. “Instead of visiting three times in a row, then getting on their feet and not coming back for several months or a year, people are coming four, five, six times in a row. And we are also seeing a lot of first-time users — people who have never used the food bank or haven’t used the food bank in years and years.”

The effect of the recession is reflected in the stories food bank volunteers hear at the front counter, Coit said.

“The car breaks down and the person has to come to the food bank in order to save money on food purchases — money that can then go to repair the car.”

When it’s not a car breakdown, it’s an unexpected illness, rising costs of medicine or another emergency.

“That’s how the working poor use us,” Coit said. “They come get their food to save on their food budget, then use that money for another emergency situation in their life.”

While demand has increased sharply, Coit said, “The community has responded very, very well.” South Sound residents recognize that their friends and neighbors are hurting financially and that many people are struggling with the basic necessities of life — food, clothing and shelter.

Organizations that meet those basic needs are receiving strong support.

While donations of food were flat last year, cash donations were up. Coit said, “It says people with means or can afford to help are giving a little more, but those in the middle class — people who are more at risk themselves — are giving less. Not many people have cupboards full of canned vegetables anymore, so they can’t respond to the food drives like they used to.”

So how can South Sound residents help?

Simple, Coit said. They can make sure that any extra cans of fruit or vegetables make it to a local food bank. They can grow extra vegetables in the family garden this summer and dedicate the excess crop to a food bank. People can volunteer to help distribute rations to food bank clients or they can make a financial donation.

“If people can give two or three dollars, it might not seem like much, but it is,” Coit said. “We can leverage those dollars and besides, it’s not about the size of the gift, it’s the number of people giving. That’s really been our strength.”

Escarra, with Feeding America, is right when she said: “It is morally reprehensible that we live in the wealthiest nation in the world where one in six people are struggling to make choices between food and other basic necessities. These are choices that no one should have to make, but particularly households with children. Insufficient nutrition has adverse effects on the physical, behavioral and mental health, and academic performance of children. It is critical that we ensure that no child goes to bed hungry in America, as they truly are our engine of economic growth and future vitality.”