TERRE HAUTE —
As a single mom, who at times has been unemployed or barely able to make ends meet, 35-year-old Kelli knows what it’s like to rely on food stamps, food pantries and the generosity of family to put food on the table.
Today, she’s employed full-time and an Indiana State University graduate. But through her work, she sees others struggling just as she did.
“There’s a lot more need than people realize, and it’s in a lot of different social classes,” she said. “You just never know.”
People might have a place to live and a job, maybe even a nice car, but still need food assistance.
New data released last week by the United States Department of Agriculture reveals that 49 million people, including 6 million children, are food insecure in the United States.
In Indiana, 13.5 percent of Hoosier households remain food insecure, meaning roughly 1 in 7 households had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough nutritious food for their family.
Prevalence of food insecurity in Indiana has risen in recent USDA reports, particularly with the very low food insecure — those who report reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns — rising to 6.3 percent in this report from 4.8 percent in the previous three-year average, ranking Indiana 12th in the nation.
This updated data comes as the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to consider a bill this month with a $40 billion cut to federal food assistance.
“When it comes to food insecurity rates, any number is too high,” said Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, the statewide association of Feeding America-affiliated food banks — including the Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank.
She advocates against the proposed cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which she says would result in millions of Americans seeing their food assistance reduced or lost entirely over the next 10 years.
Many of the food banks are already stretched thin in the wake of the recession, and charity cannot make up for the proposed federal cuts to SNAP, she said.
Last year, the Indiana network of food banks distributed 73.7 million pounds of food — about 61 million meals — to Hoosiers at risk of hunger.
Hunger has a face
At Bethany House on Friday, people waited in line for the soup kitchen to open for lunch. Others wanted to go to Deli Day, where they could select and take home unlimited vegetables and bread, or limited amounts of deli and baked goods.
Among those who took advantage of Deli Day was Cara Shepherd, 30, who lives nearby with a relative. She has five children.
“I don’t have a job. I get very little food stamps,” she said. “I come here not just to eat the food but for the people, too.”
Catholic Charities staff “are really nice and help you out with everything,” she said.
Deli Day on Fridays especially helps out toward the end of the month when her food stamps run out, Shepherd said. Sometimes she and her children eat dinner at Ryves Youth Center.
Among the items she gathered at Deli Day were bread, vegetables, oranges, apples and cinnamon rolls. Also available were drinks, including pop.
“My family will go through 10 loaves of bread a week,” Shepherd said.
Also gathering food at Deli Day was Pauletta Nicoson, who lives nearby and said she is the “house mother” at a home that assists men who have gotten into trouble with the law and are trying to get back on their feet. The program is affiliated with a church.
She sees hunger firsthand, when people go looking for food in dumpsters. For those who have been in trouble with the law, people often won’t hire them and then those unemployed people can’t feed their families, she said. They may get back into trouble again.
If it wasn’t for places such as Bethany House, with its soup kitchen and Deli Days, “I don’t know what people would do. These people need help so badly,” Nicoson said.
Brandy Thompson, who cooks at the soup kitchen, said that toward the end of the month, about 200 people a day go there for lunch. This past week, about 70 to 80 people have attended each day.
If food stamp benefits were cut, she believes more people would be eating at the soup kitchen and going to Friday Deli Days.
Those who eat at the soup kitchen have different circumstances. They may be unemployed or even homeless, perhaps living out of a car. Others don’t have family to help them and may be looking for companionship as well as food, Thompson said.
to feed the hungry
The Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank operates as a warehouse and distribution center, working with 90 member agencies and 11 mobile pantries each month in seven counties.
Tom Kuhl, foodbank program director, received a phone call just last week from a woman whose husband was recently laid off. While she works as a nurse, the couple has two teen-age sons, and her salary doesn’t cover all their needs.
The woman needed food assistance. In those instances, Kuhl typically refers a family to one of the member agencies that has a pantry.
The scenario is not unusual, he said.
Donations to the food bank are slim this time of year, but “the demand is 365 days a year,” Kuhl said in an interview at the food bank, where a couple came to donate some food and a pantry came to pick up food.
One in four Hoosier children are food insecure and may not know where their next meal will come from, Kuhl said.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in people calling the food bank for assistance,” he said. “Pantries tell us the demand they see is overwhelming at this point.”
Even over the last year, some pantries have seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in clients, he said.
At the end of each month, when people’s SNAP benefits run out, “We are inundated with calls,” Kuhl said.
Many people served by food pantries and soup kitchens in the Wabash Valley do not receive SNAP (food stamps), said John Etling, executive director of Catholic Charities in Terre Haute. To be eligible, families can’t have more than $2,000 in assets (for most households), and “it’s a bit of a cumbersome process to apply for it. Many don’t want to get on it.”
Also, convicted drug felons can’t receive SNAP.
Etling is not opposed to SNAP, but he believes food banks and member agencies “can feed people more efficiently and more cost effectively than the government can.”
He believes hunger is best dealt with at the local level, and food banks provide the best line of defense.
“That’s where most of the impact will be realized … by reaching out and creating those strong relationships at the closest level to where hunger exists,” Etling said. “I don’t think Washington will solve our hunger problems.”
And the need is great, especially with the community’s high poverty and child poverty rates, unemployment rate and high number of working poor, he said.
The federal Affordable Care Act appears to be promoting more part-time, rather than full-time, employment, he said.
When you put all that together, “It’s a rather challenging situation,” Etling said.
Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, opposes cuts to SNAP funding levels.
The cuts would come on top of benefit reductions for all SNAP recipients that will take effect on Nov. 1 and will average about $36 per month for a family of four.
“With so many of our neighbors, friends and family worrying about where the next meal is coming from, now is not the time to cut federal nutrition programs,” she stated in a news release. “These programs are critical to meeting the current need.”
Most Hoosier households that benefit from SNAP include children, seniors or someone with a disability. “Those are the ones who will be hurt,” she said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.