Hunger Among Us
photos left to right: ©MNSTUDIO//FOTOLIA, ©12FRAMES/FOTOLIA
BY SHERRI SMITH BROWN | FALL 2013
Food insecure households emerging in the suburbs
One degree of separation. That is all there is between you and someone who is hungry—someone who lives right here in the United States of America in the year 2013. That hungry person is not necessarily homeless or poverty stricken or unemployed. Very likely, it is your neighbor or the family down the street of your suburban neighborhood.
We have all felt physical hunger. After a few hours or most of the day without food, our body sends our mind a signal that it is hungry—a sharp ache or pang that sends most of us to the refrigerator. But what if the refrigerator—and the cupboard—are bare? Those who suffer from hunger for a day or two say it is all consuming. All you can think of is food. The pangs of hunger are overwhelming. After a while, your body is weak and your mind feels cloudy. Hunger can produce a mood that is hostile.
Emotionally, hunger can be embarrassing. For many hungry people in America today, it is the first time they have faced a situation where there is not enough food in the house to feed their family—and there is no money to buy some. Perhaps, the rent or mortgage payment is due. Maybe the power is about to be turned off. Maybe the mom lost her job. Maybe the wages a two-income family brings in are still not enough to make ends meet. Whatever the reason, there is little money for groceries this week—this month.
“The face of the people we are serving has been changing,” says Rob Johnson, vice president of Community Services at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “It is not the hardened, poverty stricken face anymore—the person who has been on the street for some time. We have gone from people on the edge of poverty to folks who technically are not at official poverty levels. These are our neighbors, folks who are for the first time in their life are unemployed or underemployed. They are making the choice week after week, do I pay my rent, do I pay my car insurance, or do I buy 100 percent of the food I need to feed my family? They are food insecure.”
Hungry In America
Today, more that 50 million Americans do not have access to enough food to sustain a healthy life. This means that one in six Americans are forced to go without food for several meals, or even days. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this number has remained at or near 50 million Americans for the past four years.
Feeding America—the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity—says only 10 percent of the client households they serve are homeless, and 36 percent have at least one working adult in the home. Feeding America’s studies show that these individuals struggling with hunger include children, seniors and hard-working adults, who simply do not make enough money to make ends meet.
These Americans are “food insecure,” a term often used when referring to hunger in the United States. The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the inability to access enough food to maintain an active, healthy life for all household members, due to a lack of money and other resources. It also refers to the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods for these households. It’s important to distinguish food insecure individuals from those who are poverty stricken. Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. They may only have to forgo buying food when it’s time to pay the rent or other bills.
The statistics for food insecurity, and its sister, poverty, in America are stunning.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 48.4 million Americans (15.9 percent) were reported as living in poverty in 2012, up by 2.2 million from the previous year. “Map the Meal Gap,” a study conducted by Feeding America, revealed that 16.4 percent of the U.S. population is food insecure, up from 16.1 percent in 2012.
Education does not necessarily provide immunity to food insecurity. A hunger study conducted by Feeding America found that 17 percent of the adults interviewed had attended college or a technical school.
According to the USDA, more than 17 million children are living in food-insecure households. That’s nearly one-fourth of America’s children. Of these children, nearly 4 million are age 5 and younger.
More than 2 million rural households experience food insecurity. Rural counties often have disproportionately high rates of persistent poverty. Because they are rural, it can be difficult for food banks and food emergency assistance to support them effectively.
Hunger in Georgia & Metro Atlanta
In its effort to feed America’s hungry, Food America supplies more than 3 billion pounds of food and grocery products annually to a network of 200 food banks across the country. The Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB), a member of the Feeding America network, distributes its food and grocery products to more than 600 nonprofit partner agencies in 20 metro Atlanta and north Georgia counties.
The need for food assistance has grown significantly in Georgia over the last few years, and the statistics are staggering. According to the U.S. Census, Georgia has the third-highest poverty rate in the country. The latest U.S. Census shows that nearly 1.8 million people in the state live in poverty with more than one in every 10 seniors living in poverty. Georgia ranks seventh in food insecurity with the highest rates of hunger risk among seniors.
According to the 2013 “Map the Meal Gap” study, 20 percent of people living in Georgia don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. This is up from 19.9 percent last year.
Today, 16.9 percent of the people living in the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s service area are food insecure. Over the past four years, ACFB’s distribution has increased by 85 percent. It distributed more than 37 million pounds of food and grocery products in Fiscal Year 2011-12. The organization broke its own distribution record in May 2013 when it distributed 4,762,000 pounds of food, grocery products and supplies—32 percent more than was distributed in May last year.
Hunger in the Burbs
If you think food insecurity is not a problem in your neighborhood or county, you may want to reconsider. Hunger has spread its tentacles from the soup lines of the inner city to the country clubs and swimming pools of Atlanta’s suburbs
As a whole, researchers found an average increase in poverty of 64 percent in the nation’s largest 100 metro areas. In Atlanta, the figure is close to 159 percent, making it the largest increase of any U.S. metro area. According the U.S. Census, from 2000 to 2010, the number of poor individuals in the Atlanta metro suburbs more than doubled, growing by 122 percent.
Elizabeth Kneebone is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. “Either low income families are moving into the suburban communities for the first time,” Kneebone says, “or they are long-term residents that have been hit by the recession or structural changes in the economy and are slipping down the economic ladder.”
Over the last few years, the need for food assistance has grown significantly in the suburbs of Atlanta. There are 58,900 people receiving emergency food each week through the ACFB’s network. Studies show that 39 percent of the client households served by the food bank’s various partner agencies reported having to choose between paying their rent or mortgage and food, while 32 percent reported having to choose between paying for medicine or medical care or food.
Statistics on food insecurity in various counties around Atlanta are surprising. “Map the Meal Gap 2013” reports that 14.8 percent of the Cobb County population is food insecure, 13.5 percent of the Coweta County population, and 11 percent of the Fayette County population. Clayton County has the highest percentage of food insecurity at 24 percent of the population, while Forsyth County has the lowest at 8.4 percent.
One Cobb County resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that food insecurity and homelessness is not far away from any of us—it’s probably our neighbor. She should know. College-educated, she quit her job several years ago to start a family. She had just given birth to her second child when her husband lost his corporate job in 2010. Two weeks later, he was injured and his car was totaled in an accident caused by another driver.
“Suddenly, we had only part-time work, only one car and medical bills,” she says. “We didn’t have any debt, just our house, which we put on the market to sell; but after one year, we were forced into foreclosure. We moved into my parents’ basement. Technically, we were homeless, but we never looked homeless. Many of the people we knew never realized what we were going through. We figured out ways to keep our head above water.”
One thing they did was go to MUST Ministries, a charitable organization in Cobb County, for advice and food. “It was very humbling,” she says. “You feel broken and ashamed. But the people at MUST treated us compassionately. They were joyful and happy to help us, and it was a huge blessing. We realized as time went on that we weren’t the only ones going through hard times. The need for food is big. You don’t think about that being a reality right here in the suburbs of Atlanta.”
The impacts of hunger are far-reaching. For adults, food insecurity can be detrimental to their physical and mental health—particularly more vulnerable people, such as pregnant women and seniors. A lack of adequate and nutritious food affects behaviors and social skills. Hunger is associated with a range of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension and various cardiovascular risk factors. Food insecure adults may experience higher levels of aggression and anxiety and slower developing social skills.
Studies show that food insecure pregnant women are more likely to experience birth complications than women who are food secure, and inadequate access to food is shown to increase the risk for low birth weight in babies. Mothers of young children who experience consistent hunger receive fewer nutrients and can experience long term physical health problems. They are at greater risk for major depression and other mental health problems.
“I think the people who are most impacted by food insecurity are the recently unemployed or the underemployed,” says Johnson. “The hard-core poverty folks remain where they are. They are cycling on and off welfare. But people who have lost their jobs due to the economic downturn are facing hunger for the first time and are making choices about food or something else.”
Food insecurity can be particularly devastating to children. Children growing up in food-insecure families are vulnerable to poor health and stunted development from the earliest stages of life. Food insecurity in babies and toddlers is linked with delayed development, poorer attachment and learning difficulties. Hungry school-age children have lower academic achievement because they cannot concentrate. They are sick more often. They are at a higher risk for chronic health conditions, such as anemia and asthma. Hungry children have more social and behavioral problems. There is greater risk of truancy and tardiness and more behavioral problems, including fighting, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, mood swings and bullying.
Hungry children become adults who are not as well-prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform effectively in the contemporary workforce.
It Takes a Village
The warehouse space is packed. Stacks of bread, containers of applesauce, jars of peanut butter, and packages of cheese and ham are piled on folding tables. An assembly line of volunteers puts together sandwiches and fills brown paper lunch sacks with today’s menu for thousands of children who normally eat free and reduced cost lunches at school. Every weekday for 10 weeks during the summer, volunteers at MUST Ministries pack and hand deliver the sack lunches to kids in Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas, Gwinnett, North Fulton, Paulding and Pickens counties.
Located in Marietta, MUST Ministries is one of a growing number of charitable organizations helping to fight hunger in the Atlanta metro area.
“Our Summer Lunch program started 18 years ago,” says Kaye Cagle, director of marketing and public relations for MUST Ministries, “because a teacher had a heart for the kids she taught. She was concerned that they would not get a good lunch over the summer. She asked if MUST would put together weekday lunches for them. That first summer volunteers made 25 sack lunches, and the teacher delivered them to her students. This summer we made a total of 250,000 sack lunches, and that teacher still helps us deliver them!”
Summer Lunch is just one way MUST helps feed hungry people. This 40-year-old volunteer-driven organization also operates three food pantries, which give away a ton of canned goods and non-perishable items daily to those in need. Their Loaves and Fishes Community Kitchen feeds about 150 hungry men, women and children every day of the year. It serves nearly 82,000 meals a year, most of which are purchased and prepared by civic, church, corporate and family volunteer groups.
In Fayette County, the Smart Lunch, Smart Kid program feeds lunch each weekday during the summer to at least 325 food insecure children living in the county. The program, which is an initiative of Action Ministries—a nonprofit with an extensive network of community partners and volunteers to help impoverished Georgians—began as a grass-roots organization of local faith-based groups that came together to resolve the situation. At first, they provided one meal a week to 35 kids. Today, the group delivers over 14,000 lunches over the summer. Supplies are purchased or donated, and volunteers assemble the lunches and deliver them.
Many local organizations working to alleviate hunger use their own resources to collect and distribute food. Other groups are part of the Feeding America and the Atlanta Community Food Bank partnership, receiving some to most of their supplies through those organizations. All of these organizations dedicated to feeding hungry people are on overload these days.
“The need is unbelievable,” says Cagle. “It takes everyone working together to meet the need. We have 6,000 volunteers a year helping us. MUST Ministries used to be a crisis center for people who lost their jobs. People would be out of work for a month or so, and during that time they would rely on us. Now, people lose their jobs and can’t find one again. They depend on us to help them on a regular basis.”
Feeding America food banks provide food and groceries to 33,500 food pantries, 4,500 soup kitchens and 3,500 emergency shelters. Currently, 68 percent of the pantries, 42 percent of the soup kitchens and 15 percent of the emergency shelters rely solely on volunteers and have no paid staff. Partners are faith-based agencies affiliated with churches, mosques, synagogues and other religions organizations, or other types of nonprofit organizations.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank partners with its network of agencies to get food to those in need. In fiscal year 2011-2012, volunteers served 109,978 hours to support that mission. Agencies receive product from the ACFB and in turn, provide product to their clients through food pantries, community kitchens and shelters. Other programs include the distribution of lunches to kids in need over the weekend and free meals and snacks to low-income children after school at Boys and Girls Clubs, churches and public schools.
Through the Community Gardens program, the ACFB provides seeds and tools to more than 140 gardens in the metro area and it facilitates the “Plant a Row for the Hungry” program, which gives gardeners a way to donate extra produce. Last year produce donations totaled 64,310 pounds.
Hunger is not an individual problem. Hunger is a societal problem. Localities must step up to help secure food, raise funds, distribute food, share best practices, advocate and inspire people to take action.
Donations and volunteers are crucial to the operation of food banks and local agencies. These organizations are not just distribution centers. They provide hope to the communities and thousands of hungry people they serve. That hope includes putting families on the road to healthy, hunger-free lives; making sure no child is at risk of hunger; keeping food banks well stocked; and making sure people can get help during hard times.
With everyone working together, alleviating hunger in America—from our cities, to our rural towns, to our suburban neighborhoods—should be an American dream that can be achieved.
“The face of the people we are serving has been changing.”rob johnson
“twenty percent of people living in Georgia don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.” map the meal gap 2013
“People who have lost their jobs due to the economic downturn are facing hunger for the first time and are making choices about food or something else.” — rob johnson
atlanta community food bank
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