News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 16, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Awareness of a growing hunger problem requires empathy

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Forty-one thousand people.

A story behind each one.

People often presume they know the reasons others show up at a soup kitchen or food pantry.

John Etling figured he understood the motivation of a teenager who came to the Terre Haute Catholic Charities and the Ryves Youth Center buildings on Locust Street. Etling, agency director for Terre Haute Catholic Charities, was guiding a tour of the facilities for a local service group when the boy asked him to shoot some hoops in the gym, before getting lunch at the hall’s kitchen.

When the tour ended, Etling did just that. Other kids, watching the two play basketball, asked the teen if Etling was his dad.

“And he turned and looked at me, and said, ‘Yes. That’s my dad,’” Etling told members of various hunger-relief agencies gathered last Thursday morning in the Ryves dining hall.

Moved and humbled by the moment, Etling later asked the boy his story. His parents, both substance abusers, had just divorced and left. His brother was in juvenile detention. This teenager was abandoned. Alone. Homeless. “Couch-surfing,” a desperate practice in which discarded young people sleep in the homes of friends and anybody else who’ll take them in.

“And here, all I thought this kid was in need of was a nutritious meal,” Etling said, as the audience listened in silence.

The cause prompting Thursday’s assembly, and several other upcoming events, was Hunger Action Month, marked throughout September. The activities include this week’s United Way of the Wabash Valley/Terre Haute Catholic Charities Hunger Challenge. That project asks local residents — those who don’t have to worry about the source of their next meal — to eat for one week on $29.27 worth of food groceries. The figure represents the average weekly total that Vigo County recipients of food stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits) have to spend on groceries. That comes to $4.18 a day.

The number of Vigo County households receiving those benefits rose from 7,551 in 2011 to 8,051 this year. In west-central Indiana, 41,000 residents, including 13,500 children, live in “food insecurity,” according to Catholic Charities. The term refers to people with limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods, acquired in “socially acceptable ways.” In this region, 1 in 6 people is food insecure. Among children, 1 in 4 lives at risk of hunger.

Such statistics surprise many people.

Recently, Etling took a successful local businessman on a tour of Catholic Charities and Ryves, explaining that 54 percent of students in the Vigo County School Corp. receive free or reduced-cost lunches. More than half. In 2000, just a dozen years ago, the figure was 35 percent.

The businessman reacted similarly to others who’ve learned of the startling numbers. “The common response is, ‘I never knew. I had no idea,’” Etling said.

Their reactions are understandable, human nature. “I think sometimes we have our blinders on,” he said.

Indeed, thousands of people living in and around Terre Haute have never stood in line for meals or food goods at the Light House Mission, Ryves, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, or church food pantries. Unfortunately, many of us — despite that lack of firsthand knowledge — presume to know the reasons others find themselves standing in those lines or receiving food-assistance benefits, and figure they simply need to find a job and a way out of welfare.

The thing is, that’s not the reality. Less than 2 percent of emergency-food recipients receive welfare benefits, according to research by Feeding America. One-third of emergency-food recipients drew the main source of income from a job in the previous month. There’s more — 65 percent of food-pantry clients are women, 96 percent are U.S. citizens, and 67 percent are registered voters.

Many are senior citizens. Many are kids.

All have a different story — stories most of us don’t know.

At Catholic Charities, those seeking food are frequently “single women, and single women with children,” said Jennifer Buell, the agency’s development director. “The life situations vary in how they get to that point.” Some have seen their family break apart. Some are financially broke from insurmountable medical bills. Some just lost their jobs. Though meals provided at places like the Catholic Charities food bank and soup kitchen come at no financial cost to the recipient, all have paid a price in other ways, Etling said, in terms of self-esteem, confidence or dignity.

Many of them never dreamed they’d be asking for help. “We hear that all the time,” Buell said. “Your heart goes out to them, because if you were ever in that situation, it’s very stressful.”

Behind the hunger are unique stories of other needs — for a restored relationship, protection, a job, a home, a dad.

Etling told another story of a youngster who showed up at the charity’s preschool. The little boy was unusually rambunctious. Curious, the teacher asked him if he’d had breakfast at home. The boy told her he hadn’t, “because it wasn’t his turn,” Etling said.

On the surface, he just looked like a rowdy boy. Likewise, the kid in the gym just looked like a teenager wanting to hoop and then eat.

There was more to their stories.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or