Food pantries step up efforts to help meet increasing needs of hungry families

(Plain Press, January 2010, Joe Narkin) During 2008, 60,000 people per month received food assistance through a network of over 100 food pantries and hot meal programs in Cuyahoga County, according to statistics provided by the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland– enough people to fill Progressive Field to capacity while leaving 17,000 people still standing outside the gates.

While about 2 million hot dogs are sold at Progressive Field during a typical baseball season, the agencies partnered with the Hunger Network provided over 6.5 million full, nutritious meals during 2008.

The situation is likely to have worsened dramatically in the Cleveland area during 2009 as a global recession, that is well into its second year, has had a devastating impact on a local economy that has experienced several decades of job losses and increasing poverty.

Nationwide, 1 in 7 households (some 17 million households containing 49 million people, 14.6% of households in the country) “had difficulty putting food on the table at times during the year,” according to a 2008 report, Household Food Security in the United States, issued in November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Of the 49 million people who faced hunger in the United States during 2008, 16.7 million were minor children, an increase of 4.2 million over 2007. Over 500,00 families with children experienced hunger multiple times, despite the partial hunger protection provided by federal food assistance programs, according to the USDA report.

“It is particularly troubling that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year,” wrote U.S. President Barack Obama in a written press release in response to the USDA report. “Our children’s ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential – and therefore our competitiveness as a nation – depends on regular access to healthy meals,” wrote Obama.

“We have seen the need increase every year, but we are doing our best to keep up with the need,” said Karen Pozna, Communications Director at the Cleveland Foodbank.

The Cleveland Foodbank distributed 27 million pounds (enough for 17.5 million meals) of donated food during 2008 in six Northeastern Ohio counties. Distribution for 2009 is expected to approach 3 million pounds, said Pozna.

“We are seeing people who have never had to go to a food center before, as increasing numbers of the working poor lose their jobs and become desperate for a way to feed their families,” said Lou Keim, Director of the Community Corner Hunger and Family Food Center of the West Side Ecumenical Ministry.

While the Community Corner, located at 8302 Detroit Avenue, provides a three-day supply of food to 750 to 820 families per month, the Community Corner Outreach Program also offers additional help to food recipients with the goal of helping them achieve long-term food security by working to resolve underlying issues that have led to a food emergency.

“If a family is coming for food, there are almost always underlying issues that prompt the need for food,” said Keim. “We make referrals and we assist them in following through, but we do not enable,” she said, adding, “People do have to be accountable for their own situations.”

Effective service requires a welcoming environment and a climate of trust, especially when working with a marginalized and stigmatized population, according to Keim. “What you realize by being here is that we are all one family,” she said. Volunteers are particularly helpful at the community corner and other food programs in this regard.

“Food programs offer a great opportunity for people who want to help people,” said Fran Girard, the volunteer chairperson for the Advisory Council of the Community Corner. “It is an opportunity to both volunteer and to realize the fruits of volunteerism,” he said.

The Community Corner also operates a resale shop that offers new and gently used clothing and household items at a nominal cost to program participants. The modest charge for resale shop items is intended to help participants “preserve their dignity” and to reinforce their sense that they are making a contribution to their own material well-being, according to Keim.

According to estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau provided in the 2008 American Community Survey, median household incomes in Northeastern Ohio declined by 10%, since 1999, approximately double the national rate.  The decline for the entire State of Ohio was 9%.

The decrease in household income within minority populations has been even more dramatic. The median household income decreased 12% for Hispanic households and 18% for African-Americans in Northeast Ohio during the 9-year survey period.

The unemployment rate for Ohio was estimated by the Census Bureau at 10.5% for October, a 20-year high for unemployment in 85 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Cuyahoga County, although critics believe that the actual unemployment rate is in excess of 20%, with unemployment in the City of Cleveland consistently above 25%. The poverty rate for Cleveland is 30.5%, with 41.5% of children living in the City living in poverty.

The Census Bureau reports that, among cities with a population of over 250,000 in the United States, Cleveland trails only Detroit in poverty rates.

Food pantries offer services for residents within defined geographical service areas and offer a three-day supply of food, including meats and vegetables as available, per month per household. Individuals and families requiring emergency food assistance through a food pantry in their area should call the First Call for Help Helpline by dialing 211.

First Call for Help can also provide information regarding free hot meal and federal food assistance programs for individuals and families experiencing hunger or food shortages, as well as volunteer opportunities for those seeking to be of service.


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