Senior National Editor
As we sit down at tables laden with food, hold off a moment before putting that forkful in your mouth to give thanks for the bounty before you and remember that for millions of Americans it is just one more day of challenge.
The good folks who run the nation’s food banks know that the Thanksgiving holiday brings greater attention to what the government calls “food insecurity,” a clinical term for what the rest of us call hunger. The anecdotes in this piece come from Ken Kupchick, marketing director for the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but are typical of what can be heard around the country.
There was the “very nice young mother” who walked into the food bank and said, “I used to volunteer at a food pantry. Now I need to use one.” Medical bills for their three children, including one with a genetic heart defect, had pushed her and her husband to the brink. Facing another $1,000 bill, the woman figured they would need to use a pantry for about six months until they got back on their feet financially.
Too many people needing help. Not enough food. Demand outstripping supply. This equation continues to worsen, even as the nation’s economy shows the most tentative signs of recovery.
Madelyn was described “as a very proper, eloquent and elegant Southern lady,” who was more than making ends meet until her husband passed away. Now she lives on $665 a month from Social Security and $16 a month in food stamps. “She was discovered sorting through the dumpster garbage at the local grocery store” and “would have been totally lost in society” had a store employee not spotted her. “She says she goes to the dumpster three times a week, recovering tomatoes, eggs, cottage cheese and yogurt to live on.”
According to the government, in 2010 14.5 percent of the nation’s households (just about one in seven) met the definition for “food insecurity,” including 5.4 percent living with “very low food security,” defined as “meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”
"B" is a 15-years-old sentenced to community service after he was caught shoplifting at a local store. “He came across as a typical teen with a chip on his shoulder.” Reproached for showing up wearing socks and flip flops, he confessed that he had no other shoes, prompting the food bank to buy him a pair of sneakers. “After some thought we realized, if his family didn't have enough for shoes, what could possibly be there to eat? We enlisted the aid of the family's pastor and discovered that the family, a mom and three kids, had nothing but bread, mayonnaise and little packages of soy sauce in the house.” That’s when the food banks and pantries become a resource of last resort.
Fort Smith is a city of about 86,000 people in a state of more than 2.9 million people. The River Valley food bank, which serves an eight-county area in West Central Arkansas, distributes about 3.7 million pounds of food annually through more than 210 member agencies, of which about 170 are pantries and other sites that feed people directly.
U.S. Senator John Boozman, a Republican, wrote in a recent newsletter: “The most staggering statistic is that nearly one fourth of Arkansas children go to sleep hungry. While we’ve seen the images of starving children in Somalia in news coverage, the reality is we don’t have to go far to see that hunger exists here.”
Danette recently moved to Fort Smith. She’s a single mother who makes what money she can writing poetry and children’s books. “At a recent food pantry giveaway she cried as she said, ‘Do you know what the hardest part is about being a mom and putting your kids to bed hungry? Going through the night knowing that when those kids wake up there will still be no food.’”
Kupchick, who describes himself as “a displaced corporate director who decided to give back before moving on,” says the food bank usually has about 850,000 pounds of food on hand, but it goes out almost as fast as it comes in. “We could not do what we do without our food donations."
Walmart/Sam's Club (whose corporate headquarters is in Arkansas) itself provides $6.8 million worth of food. Other contributors include Allen Canning, Mrs. Baird’s Bread, McKee Foods, Harps/PriceCutter groceries and such big names as Pepsi Cola, ConAgra and Kellogg’s. “It’s the proteins, produce and dairy that is hardest to come by,” Kupchick says. Commodities provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are valued at about $250,000.
Financially, community donations are roughly $65,000 a year. United Way provides about $55,000. The food bank’s share of state hunger relief aid is about $120,000.
Every pound of food, whether donated by an individual or a corporation, and every dollar, regardless of its source, is prized.
At Thanksgiving, Kupchick estimates that the food bank can help only about 500 of the 16,000 needy families in its region put a holiday meal on their tables. There were truckloads of “turkeys with missing parts” available from a provider in Pennsylvania at 93 cents a pound, but buying those 3,000 birds would have cost about $40,000 and exhausted what the food bank receives in individual and family donations in a year. Unable to find a partner to join in that purchase, the food bank was forced to pass. Local Walmart stores kicked in 222 frozen turkeys that had been mistagged, “perfectly good foods, simply not saleable at the retail level.” Priority for distribution of those birds went to military veterans.
Then there is the “baloney sandwich index.” The food bank operates a small soup kitchen to serve the homeless and low-income in the downtown Fort Smith area. “Their mission is to serve a simple lunch to the homeless while respecting their dignity,” Kupchick says. Until the last two or three years, the number of these bagged lunches served was about 2,500-3,000 a month. “Once the recession hit, they have obviously seen the numbers rising. We were astounded when the number jumped to 4000.” Kupchick crunched the sandwich numbers dating back to 2003 and plotted those against unemployment rates to create the uniquely named measurement. “But of late . . . It’s going out of control as people are falling off unemployment insurance and extended benefits.”
Unfortunately, the need for food aid in Fort Smith, Arkansas, may rise when Whirlpool closes its refrigerator plant by mid-2012 and roughly 1,000 people lose their jobs. The plant once employed some 4,500 workers. Referring to that young mother who said her family would need to use a food pantry for about six months, Kupchick said, “It used to be that way. Most food pantry users just needed temporary help. Now, we see so many on disability or social security. It's not enough and they are now long term dependent. Whirlpool's closure will add to that long term dependency. We have to brace for sustaining a higher level of need for several years to come.”
What's happening in Fort Smith may be similar to what's happening where you live. So, when you extend a hand to pass a plate at your table, give a moment's thought to those who may not be receiving.