Published on Monday, December 18, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
In America's 'Boom Time',
A Record Cry for Food
In terms of childhood hunger, we're the last, among all the industrialized nations.
by Elizabeth Mehren
 
WALTHAM, Mass. -- In a season that finds many Americans swimming in holiday excess, food banks around the country have reported record requests for assistance. Much of the demand for food comes from people with jobs, and most from families with children.

So loud was the cry for Thanksgiving meals that some shelters ran out of turkeys to give away.

"It was incredible," said Nancy Carrington of the Connecticut Food Bank. Her group distributed 21,000 birds--up from 17,000 the previous Thanksgiving--and Carrington said Christmas portends a repeat performance. "Unfortunately," she said, "in the last five years, the demand for food has been going up every single year."

In Los Angeles, requests for emergency food assistance have increased 22% in the last year. "Our charities tell us it's mostly the increase in the working poor, people working two or three jobs and yet they still don't have enough to pay rent and food," said Daren Hoffman, spokesman at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

Amid the nation's unprecedented prosperity, an estimated 31 million Americans live in households that suffer from hunger.

The problem earns modest public attention during the holidays, when coins drop freely into charity kettles, said J. Larry Brown, head of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University here. But he said hunger looms year-round as a hidden crisis that vexes experts.

Brown has launched a coalition of academics and celebrities intent on halting hunger in this country in the next five years. "The need for food in the holidays is a sentinel indicator of need the rest of the time--and one that's not diminishing when it ought to be," he said.

"In terms of the lives of the poor and the hungry, there's no evidence that the holiday season is a unique time. Poor people have an odd habit of getting hungry the next day."

Data released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors show that most people seeking food assistance are employed. Brown's research indicates that from 1998 to 1999, requests for emergency food aid increased an average of 18% nationwide--with nearly 60% coming from families with children.

Federal free breakfast programs reach only 41% of eligible low-income children, Brown said. Only 22% of eligible kids take part in the federal summer food program.

Typically, said Brown, about 68% to 72% of eligible families receive food stamps. But with welfare reform changes, that figure has dropped to about 60%. The number of poor children whose families receive food stamps fell from 94% in 1994 to 75% in 1998, he said.

The numbers became achingly real this year as food banks sought to provide Thanksgiving turkeys for needy clients. Carrington, at the Connecticut Food Bank, said she calculated that the increased number of turkeys this year meant her facility was feeding 24,000 more people than the year before.

"When things are booming--when builders in this area can't keep up with orders for big new houses--that's a scary thing to contemplate," she said.

At one Arizona food bank, 60% of requests for Thanksgiving turkeys came from families where at least one parent was employed. Sandy Schimmel, director of community relations for St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix, said the demand for emergency food boxes in November soared to 9,000--up from 5,000 the year before.

Contrary to the perception that hunger is predominantly a problem of the homeless, Schimmel said only about 5% of her clientele are homeless. And, she said, in a local economy where many people have low-paying jobs in the service industry, food often becomes a family's luxury item.

"These are people who are hard-working. They pay the rent. They pay their light bill. They make their car payment," Schimmel said. "But then they get a flat tire, and it becomes, do I change my tire or do I buy food for my family?"

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Hoffman said that as holiday demand has increased, a dearth of donations has tightened supplies. "Last year at this time, we had 2.6 million pounds of inventory. Today [we] have just under 1 million pounds," he said. "It's almost a 58% reduction. We're just kind of in this big valley."

Hoffman said the food bank increased the number of children's programs it assists from 15 in 1999 to 29 this year. In the last 10 months, the agency has added a total of 60 organizations, bringing the total number of people they serve from 270,000 to more than 300,000 in Los Angeles County.

In terms of elementary hunger economics, said Brown--who recently assessed 50 current studies on hunger--"the short version is that over the last decade, real wages for entry-level workers have fallen by almost 8% for men and around 6% for women."

The average after-tax income of the middle fifth of the population has grown by 8% over the last several years. But the bottom fifth has declined by 10% over the same period, Brown said.

Changes in welfare policy also mean that fewer families than ever get food stamps, Brown and other experts said, noting that the hunger issue also is propelled by a minimum wage that since 1970 has not kept pace with inflation. These factors merge, Brown said, to produce "the strange situation where we have a strong economy, low unemployment and yet hunger is almost impervious."

The seeming intractability of the hunger question prompted Brown to form a nonprofit effort known as Hunger Free America. With a three-year budget of $3 million, the fledgling project bridges Brown's academic expertise with the star power of the Hollywood End Hunger Network and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

The group has enlisted 50 celebrity volunteers, one for each state, including Robin Williams, Pierce Brosnan and Quincy Jones. Jeff Bridges has signed on to head the Hollywood effort beginning next month. "The celebrities will be used in many ways, not so much only for TV commercials, but, really to talk about the problem of hunger," Bridges said Friday. Some stars, he said, will teach a public school program on hunger.

Hunger Free America (http://www.hungerfreeamerica.org) also has taped a series of public service TV announcements, with narrators ranging from President Clinton to a 9-year-old girl who offers firsthand advice on coping with hunger.

"When you come home and there's nothing to eat," the rail-thin child says, "try eating ice chips. Even though they won't give you energy and stuff like that, they'll trick your stomach into thinking you've eaten something."

Using public battles against AIDS and breast cancer as models, retired Santa Monica businessman Monty Factor said the group's aim is to raise awareness about hunger.

"What our goal has been and still is, is to allow Americans to see the actual truth about the issue of hunger, and the fact that we are not the leading country in the world, feeding people," said Factor, who for 20 years has worked with the End Hunger Network in Los Angeles.

"In terms of childhood hunger, we're the last, actually, among all the industrialized nations," he said.

Times correspondent Laura Wides in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

###