The dominant faces of hunger in America are young, white and female, and they’re turning up more in rural areas, according to a study released Tuesday by Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger-relief agency.
At a time of national economic prosperity, nearly 26 million people sought meals and groceries last year at food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. Another 70,000 were turned away because of a shortage of more than 115 million pounds of food.
The most comprehensive study of hunger in four years shows how the problem increasingly is defined along gender and generational lines. The results suggest that welfare reform, low-paying jobs and a growing income disparity have combined to push hunger further into America’s heartland and mainstream, experts said.
Most Americans don’t see the problem, said Christine Vladimiroff, president of Chicago-based Second Harvest, which distributes more than 1 billion pounds of food to charitable organizations nationwide. And the crisis belies the glowing economic picture painted by low inflation, record corporate profits, record unemployment and high consumer confidence.
“We help to feed the world, but in our cities full of markets and restaurants, in our suburbs with super discount grocery stores and down the rural lanes surrounded by fields of rich grain, all too often there are hungry Americans. … And it is robbing our nation of the productivity of those who are forced to struggle with it,” Vladimiroff said.
Conducted over a three-month period last year, the study drew from personal interviews with nearly 28,000 people served by emergency food providers, and interviews and surveys of nearly 13,000 programs that feed needy people.
Vladimiroff said she hopes the profile will be used as a blueprint to guide future policies on hunger.
The study found that 62 percent of people who sought food from charities were female; 38 percent were 17 years old or younger; and 16 percent were 65 or over. Nearly half, or 47.1 percent, were white; 32.1 percent were black; and 14.6 percent were Hispanic.
While many food programs were located in large urban areas, 53 percent served rural areas and cities with fewer than 100,000 residents.
About 29 percent of people who sought help depended on Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, while 28 percent said employment was their main source of income. In 39 percent of families at least one adult was working. But of those who were working, 45 percent were in low-paying jobs and didn’t earn enough to feed themselves.
“The data run counter to nearly every stereotype we have of who needs assistance,” said J. Larry Brown, head of the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University. “It’s mainly families that are playing by the rules.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, Kim Anderson, a registered nurse from Minneapolis, said she was homeless and hungry when she and her husband separated shortly after the birth of her daughter in 1996. For 18 months, as she worked and struggled to pay for a new home, she swallowed her pride and regularly visited a food pantry to make ends meet.
“I really had to muster up the strength to do it,” Anderson said. “It was really hard. I had been a giving person prior to all this, so I always considered myself more like a volunteer rather than someone who would need help.”
The study paints a picture of a segment of society that has been largely ignored, but now represents nearly 10 percent of the nation’s population. U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, witnessed that when he visited a rural food pantry in Ohio and saw about 1,200 people in line.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Hall said. “I thought, ‘What is this, Ethiopia?”’
Hall said the problem escalated when Congress in 1996 cut the food stamp program by $27 billion to help pay for welfare reform, and then added only $170 million in aid to food banks.
“We knew at that time that it was going to be a problem, but we didn’t expect it to pop up so quickly,” said Hall, who says he will introduce legislation to increase federal funding for food banks and to give a tax break to organizations that donate food to charity.
In his 1999 budget proposal, President Clinton is seeking $535 million to restore food stamps to about 700,000 legal immigrants who are disabled, elderly or young. They lost their benefits when welfare was overhauled. But Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who chairs a House agricultural committee that would consider the measure, opposes the plan. He said immigrants should look to their families and themselves for support.
David Nasby, director of communications for General Mills, said the nation’s large food producers are considering regularly donating food from an entire production shift to charity. Vladimiroff said the gesture is needed because charity groups nationwide ran 2.2 million pounds short of food each week last year.