Younger and Hungrier in America

The Struggle to Feed America's Nouveau Needy

The message is simple. Ever more Americans need food they can't afford.
As tough economic times take their toll, increasing numbers of
Americans are on tightened budgets and, in some cases, facing outright
hunger. As a result, they may be learning a lot more about food banks
and soup kitchens than most of them ever wanted to know.

In recent interviews with, representatives from food
banks -- the non-profit organizations that distribute groceries to
those in need via food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens --
expressed alarm at the recent surge in need all across the country. At
the same time, most stated that, however counterintuitive it might
seem, financial contributions to their organizations are actually on
the rise. So, too, are food prices, however -- and donations,
unfortunately, are not keeping up with demand.

Food bank representatives agree on one thing: the need for their
services is spiking in a way none of them can recall. Again and again,
they emphasize that lines at food pantries are growing longer,
seemingly by the month, and that those in line are younger and often
more middle class than ever before.

Families who just months ago didn't even know what a food bank was and
would never have considered visiting a food pantry now have far more
intimate knowledge of both. Embarrassed to approach institutions that
they previously identified with the poor and indigent, many, say food
bank officials, are also waiting far too long to seek aid. Other
formerly middle class Americans who have never dealt with, or even
thought about, food insecurity before simply don't know whom to call or
where to turn.

These points echo a December 2008 survey conducted by Feeding America,
a national hunger-relief charity. Its network of more than 200 food
banks in all 50 states distributes more than two billion pounds of
donated groceries annually to 63,000 local charitable agencies. Its
survey found that, of 160 food banks, 99.4% of them reported seeing
more first-time users in 2008.

For America's food banks this has meant one thing: that they, too, are
needier. They need ever more fresh food, non-perishable food, and
non-food items like cleaning products and toiletries from wholesalers,
retailers, food distributors, corporations, charities, government
agencies, local farms, and individual donors. They need ever more
storage and freezer space. They need ever more volunteers. They need
ever more food that can be made available on appointed distribution
days at food pantries. And they need ever more emergency food supplies,
available on demand for people who suddenly realize that they are
hungry and out of options, possibly for the first time in their lives.

The Face of Hunger Today

"Hunger does not discriminate, but the face of the hungry is growing younger," says Stanley Bray of the St. Louis Area Foodbank,
which distributes food to more than 500 agencies, including food
pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and emergency food programs in 14
counties in eastern Missouri and 12 counties in southwestern Illinois.
Bray's organization has seen a 15% increase in need just since October
2008. Thirty to forty percent of that 15%, he says, are first-time
clients. "Typically, those who would have volunteered at the Foodbank
are now recipients of food at local pantries," he notes.

Even as Americans who once might have donated food or money now find
themselves in need, people still have the urge to help as best they
can. At one West Coast food bank, a representative told me of a man who
recently came in with a proposition. He needed six weeks of food
assistance while he was putting together the money to travel across
country and move back in with his parents. Until then, he suggested, he
would work for the food bank to pay his way.

"I must say that we are amazed and touched by the attitude of our
community. From large local financial services [wealth management]
companies, to the local Rotaries, schools, small businesses, and
countless individuals -- everybody seems to be sharing what they can,"
notes Iris Valanti of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
"Unlike the squabbling going on in Washington, people out here in real
life are trying to pull together and do what they can."

But that communal spirit can only take food banks so far, given the
troubling trends on the horizon. According to Valanti, large
foundations are reviewing their "decimated portfolios" and trimming
donations, leaving organizations like hers wondering what the future
will bring. In fact, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's
subsidiaries are already struggling to obtain needed grants to secure
new freezers to store food for the increasing number of nouveau
needy. At the same time, she points out, food donations are actually
down in her area, while the organization's food purchases have
increased by an astonishing 560% in the last two years.

Valanti spelled out the enormity of the problem: "Fall quarter 2008 saw
a 44% decrease in donated product we get through our national network
partner Feeding America... The other trend was skyrocketing food prices.
Our wholesale cost for a case of pasta, for instance, has risen 88%
since 2006."

According to Cindy Stevens of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma,
demand for assistance began its current upswing after a major ice storm
knocked out power in much of the area in December 2007. Food in
refrigerators spoiled and many Oklahomans in the area were prevented
from working, and thus from receiving paychecks. That led to the first
"slight increase" in need, followed by a major jump when gas prices
soared in the summer of 2008. Even though gas prices have fallen since,
the economy has melted down with them.

"Our agencies report as much as a 40% increase in the number of people
coming to them for assistance," she notes. Like other food assistance
providers nationwide, her food bank has observed a clear shift in
demographics. "Our agencies are reporting a change in clientele. Many
of the people who are coming to them have never had to seek assistance
before. Many of them have jobs or have just lost a job."

West Coast Woes

The San Diego Food Bank,
which distributes groceries to 300 soup kitchens, senior centers, food
pantries, churches, and other allied nonprofits in sprawling San Diego
County, is facing similar marked increases in need. From December 2007
to December 2008, the number of people served by its USDA-funded
Emergency Food Assistance Program, which aids low income people via 91
distribution sites, jumped from 37,302 to 65,663 -- a 76% increase.
"It's unprecedented," says the Food Bank's Chris Carter. "We're seeing
many more middle-class families coming in. I met a couple at one of our
distributions, they have a mortgage and two car payments. They've both
been laid off. The first thing to go is the food budget."

It can take several months for food stamps to kick in after they've
been applied for, and, as Carter points out, "a lot of people don't
have a couple of months. They need food immediately, so they're coming
directly to us. We're seeing a dramatic increase in demand for food
assistance across the board."

In some places, people need to wait for specific distribution days
to get help from a food pantry. In San Diego, the needy don't have that
worry; neither do people in Oakland, California, where the Alameda County Community Food Bank
operates an Emergency Food Helpline. With just a phone call, those in
dire need can receive food at a local pantry on the very day they dial.
In 13 years, the Bank's help line had received more than 1,500 calls a
month only twice. In 2008, every month topped the 1,500 mark. For the
last six months, the average has been more than 2,000 a month and is
soon expected to break the 2,500-call barrier.

In the last three months of 2008, according to Brian Higgins, the Food
Bank's Communications Manager, "We saw a 45% spike over the exact same
period in 2007, which was, in itself, a record breaking year." Add
those numbers to the 40,000 people fed each week by the organization
which distributes about 15 million pounds of food per year, while
keeping in mind that we're only talking about one small city, and you
begin to get a sense of the enormity of the crisis bearing down on the

Oakland is a poor city and many there have long experienced privation.
Not surprisingly, the current economic crisis has hit its population
hard. In East Oakland, the city's neediest area, people line up each
Friday at the Columbian Gardens food pantry in anticipation of a
regular delivery of groceries from the county food bank. "Those lines
have gotten longer and longer and longer," says Higgins. Phone calls
for emergency food are increasing exponentially as well. Two years ago,
the staff at Columbian Gardens used to distribute four to five
emergency bags of staples, including canned goods and pasta, each day.
Now, on a normal day, it's 25 to 30 bags.

Nor is the pain confined to perennially hard-hit East Oakland. The
whole city is suffering. Next door to the Alameda County Community Food
Bank, for example, a brand new $35 million Toyota dealership
-- the largest in all of Northern California -- was built from scratch
on an empty lot. "It was open about eight weeks before it closed,"
comments Higgins -- and it's just one of numerous local businesses
shutting down.

As a result, Oakland, historically saddled with the most impoverished
senior population in all of California, is seeing new trends that the
Food Bank's workers find chilling. Higgins notes that the population
they serve now includes "more and more young people and working
families. We're seeing people who made really decent money a couple
years ago in real estate and other commission fields, who are down to
nothing. They're having to make that call for first time."

Unfortunately, many put off calling for assistance for as long as
possible. "People who work on our emergency food help-lines," he
continues, "say there's a universal embarrassment about the calls
they're getting now." Phone operators reassure clients that the food
bank is there for that very reason, but shame and stigma have led to
increased privation. "It really delays people calling."

At the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano,
California, Lisa Sherrill has noted the same kind of spike in need.
"Overall, we are serving 20% more people over two years ago," she wrote
in a recent email. At some of its 29 Food Assistance Program sites,
where boxes of fresh produce, bread, and other staples are handed out,
demand is increasing by 5-10% a month.

Donated funds are on the rise, but they can't fully compensate for the
surge in new assistance seekers. "There are many people in our Food
Assistance lines that have never had to ask for food before," notes
Sherrill. "Last week at a site in Antioch, we spoke with a man who has
a master's [degree] in engineering, lost his job, and is having a hard
time finding work because there aren't many opportunities, and what he
can find he is being told he is overqualified for."

Alaska has fared better than many states. Lacking massive waves of home
foreclosures and a startlingly high unemployment rate, it has been
buffered from the worst of the hardships seen elsewhere. Still, the
arrival of tough economic times was plainly visible last fall at
"Thanksgiving Blessing," an annual holiday grocery distribution program
spearheaded by the Food Bank of Alaska and held at eight locations in Anchorage.

In 2008, according to Marleah LaBelle, communications manager for the
food bank, 5,900 families turned out for Thanksgiving Blessing, a 42.7%
increase over the previous year. "If you factor the 5,900 families,
with an average family size of four, and the total population of
Anchorage 260,283 -- that is roughly 10% of the population or one in
ten families," LaBelle notes. A similar December program, "Neighborhood
GIFT" (which also includes toy distribution) saw a 30% spike in turnout
compared to 2007. "I saw people that I knew personally at both of the
holiday food distributions, and they are people I had not previously
considered to be 'low income,'" she adds.

Unfortunately, the holiday season spike proved no aberration in
Anchorage. The food bank's affiliates have been reporting, across the
board, 30-50% increases in people visiting their soup kitchens and food
pantries. For instance, the number of clients at the Valley Open Bible
Fellowship food pantry in Big Lake, Alaska, has doubled recently.

As elsewhere, monetary donations have also increased for the Food Bank
of Alaska, but ever less retail food is now being donated -- a
worrisome trend nationally in light of increased need. "Something that
has been striking to nearly everyone at Food Bank of Alaska is how
quickly the food comes off the shelves in the warehouse. As soon as
donated food gets sorted, it almost instantly gets picked up," LeBelle
wrote in a recent email.

What's Ahead for the Nouveau Needy?

Tens of millions of Americans were already suffering from hunger and
food insecurity before the current depression. In fact, in 2006, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 35.5 million Americans
were "food insecure." Now, however, those numbers are bound to swell,
thanks to the growing ranks of America's nouveau
needy. "It's the new face of hunger for us. Before we primarily served
the low-income population, the working poor, as people call them," says
the San Diego Food Bank's Chris Carter. "Now middle class families who
were in retail jobs, construction, the real estate industry... are
finding themselves in our lines. Some of these people are those who
would have donated food to us before, who would never dream they'd be
in one of our food lines, and now they need help."

From his conversations with clients at the food bank's distribution
sites, Carter sees bleak times ahead, especially for the staggering
number of people who have, as a last resort, been maxing out their
credit cards. "We've seen the credit crunch on Wall Street and the
ripple effect that it's had on more vulnerable industries across the
country. I think there's going to be a credit tightening at the
consumer level. When that happens we're going to see a huge surge in
demand," he said recently. "This is going to get worse before it gets

Such prospects will spell trouble in the years ahead. The Federal
government is now pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into bailing
out broken banks. If hunger and need continue to skyrocket, food banks
may be the next banks to break. Who will bail them out?

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