New face of hunger in US

As economy stalls, working poor help swell food banks from New York to New Mexico.

Hunger is on the rise across America.

In New York City, demand for emergency food is so high that 1 in 5 pantries is turning people away because they don't have enough to feed them. In Madison, Wis., the Salvation Army's stores ran so low that the local food bank had to give them an emergency grant to restock their shelves. And in Augusta, Ga., donated food flies out of the Golden Harvest Food Bank's warehouse as fast as it comes in. They're giving away twice as much as they did four years ago, and that's still not enough to meet the need.

Food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens elsewhere tell similar stories. Demand for emergency food is up 25 to 30 percent from last year, when 23.3 million people sought assistance.

More of those in need are like Jene Hayward. The mother of two works full time, but after paying rent and utilities and helping with her son's college expenses, she has little left over for groceries.

For her, and millions of others, visits to the food pantry are no longer one-time emergency stops, but a regular part of the monthly routine. Indeed, America's Second Harvest, the nation's leading hunger-relief organization, now estimates that more than 40 percent of America's hungry are working poor.

"The face of hunger has changed dramatically in this country. More of the hungry are now the working poor and children," says Robert Forney, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest.

At the same time that food banks and pantries are coping with soaring demand, donations are down. The situation at the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, Fla., is typical. Demand is up 27 percent over last year, while cash donations are down nearly 50 percent.

"Eventually, something has to give, and right now, it's our cash reserves," says Hawley Botchford, Chapin's executive director. "We're just going to continue on and have faith this thing is going to turn around."

The chief cause of the problems is the sputtering economy. In August, another 140,000 people lost their jobs. That's on top of the 81,000 people laid off in July. In New York City alone since Sept. 11, more than 135,000 people have been without work.

Those numbers help explain what officials are now calling a "hunger crisis" in the city. A study released this week by the Food Bank for New York City found that more than 80 percent of the city's soup kitchens and food pantries are coping with a steady rise in demand that surpasses the levels seen immediately after the attacks.

To help meet the need, many have extended their hours and the number of days of operation. Some are stretching their resources as well by reducing the amount in individual food baskets so they can serve more people.

At the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry nestled in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in a swanky Manhattan neighborhood, demand is up 30 percent over last year. As at other food pantries nationwide, says executive director Doreen Wohl, there has been a steady increase in need, particularly among working people, over the past five or six years. But demand spiked even higher after Sept. 11.

With help from religious groups after the attacks, Ms. Wohl was able to increase her budget from $185,000 to $260,000. She also established a policy that they would never run out of food.

"People don't come unless they absolutely need the food," she says, standing in a half-empty storage room in the church's basement. "To come here, but then to be told that there's no food, well, that just adds to the hurt."

The Food Bank study found that unemployment and inadequate wages are key causes of the problem, according to Lucy Cabrera, the Food Bank's president. That's reflected across the country as well. In Oregon, with the highest unemployment rate in the US, 43 percent of the people who visit food pantries and soup kitchens are working poor. Last year, more than 700,000 people of the state's 3.5 million people received emergency food assistance.

"Service-industry jobs, minimum-wage jobs just don't pay a living wage," says Rachel Bristol, executive director of the Oregon Food Bank.

As a result, many food-assistance organizations are changing how they look at their mission and the services they provide.

"We used to call it emergency food assistance, but it's not emergency any more. It's supplemental, week in and week out, month after month," says Pat Barrick of City Harvest, a leading emergency food distributor in New York.

Ms. Hayward makes $13 an hour at her job at the New York City Department of Education, which is more than twice the minimum wage. Still, with her husband out of work, one child in college, and the younger one needing clothes and books, her income isn't enough to meet basic expenses. Two to three times a week, they stop by the Help House Love Kitchen in the Bronx.

"Money is tight, especially with the college costs," she says, shying away from a camera, asking that her picture not be taken. "It's holding us back, but it's going to push us forward, too."

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