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July 3, 2009

BILL MOYERS: You heard Serene Jones say her students at Union Theological Hunger to make a difference, and that many of them will go forth to work for a better society on its margins - among the poor in churches, clinics, shelters and soup kitchens, where theology proves its relevance, or reveals its impotence.

What she said prompted us to revisit some people we met early last year, in kitchens and food banks where the hunger was literal and growing even before the financial collapse in the fall. It was 15 months ago, and we began our report just north of New York City, in Westchester County, one of the ten wealthiest counties in America. A few blocks from Westchester's lovely homes and manicured lawns, at New Rochelle's Hope Community Services, we found volunteers struggling to help people desperately in need of their daily bread - people like Rosabelle Walker

ROSABELLE WALKER: I was a very independent woman. You couldn't get me to come stand in line to get no food free from nobody. Because I was always used to working and taking care of myself. The first job I had was 16, I was the section hand on the railroad during the Second World War. I worked in the steel mills in Pennsylvania. When I came to New York, I did housework 'cause that's all women got in New York was domestic day work. I worked in the laundry. Then I managed the Laundromat. I'd work right now, even though I'm over 80, I'd go take care of somebody that's 75 or 80. And stay with them in their home, and get paid for it. I don't like lazy. But then I got down to the place where I was retired. No money.

VOLUNTEER: Hi, Rosabelle!

ROSABELLE WALKER: No income coming in.


VOLUNTEER: Here you go.

ROSABELLE WALKER: And finally in desperation, I said, "Well, if everybody else can go get it, I will, too."

ROSABELLE WALKER: Come on, Matilda.

ROSABELLE WALKER: And that's what started me to coming to the pantry.

TOM MCGARRY: Good morning, sir. How are you?

VOLUNTEER: Yup. Gotcha.

TOM MCGARRY: I lost my job because of defense cutbacks.

TOM MCGARRY: Thank you very much.

VOLUNTEER: You have a good day.

TOM MCGARRY: You too. Thank you.

TOM MCGARRY: And I've been looking around here for jobs. I want to work. I want to provide for myself. I always did.

TOM MCGARRY: Is she coming back?

TOM MCGARRY: I've been doing that since I was 18. And, I don't like this. Not at all.

VOLUNTEER: Here you go.


VOLUNTEER: Have a good day.


KATIE BROCCONE: I was once told by a man that if he ever got in my position that he'd hope somebody would shoot him. And I said, "That's pretty extreme." Because it's not that I'm just laying back and I'm lazy. I worked my whole life. I supported my four children and then I had gotten sick. And these are the positions that people don't realize.

REVEREND MELONY SAMUELS: When you think of food pantries, you think of the homeless. You think of shelters. You think of substance abuse. You think of just outright people who are down and out. But now the faces have changed.

REVEREND MELONY SAMUELS: We're short on fresh vegetables. There is - we have onions.

BILL MOYERS: Reverend Melony Samuels directs the BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger.

REVEREND MELONY SAMUELS: You want some canned vegetables?

REVEREND MELONY SAMUELS: Now, we are seeing more families, mothers with children, working families coming in. We're seeing people that have graduated from high school, people who are making a fairly good income, but they have told us over and over again that the cost of food is unbelievable. The cost of living, finding housing, that has pushed them into food pantries and they don't only come to this food pantry, but they go to several food pantries, trying to see if they accumulate enough food for a week.


REVEREND MELONY SAMUELS: The food bank is not delivering as they used to. We still get a weekly delivery and sometimes it is so sparingly. It's unbelievable, when you see exactly what comes off the truck. You're disappointed. People are disappointed, because once the truck drives up, then the neighborhood knows, and they start coming. They are coming because they figure food is here. A child told me a story recently, and she said, "Well, when my mother prepares food, we get such a small amount. But then there is some left and I would ask for more, and she would tell me. 'You cannot have anymore, because what is left is for tomorrow, and if you eat it today, you will go hungry tomorrow.'"

BILL MOYERS: The city's food pantries and soup kitchens rely on the food bank for New York City to supply much of the food they give out. But now this resource is drying up.

TYRONE HARRYSINGH: We used to have a lot of vegetables, a lot of protein, a lot of beans, pasta. Those items have basically disappeared.

BILL MOYERS: Tyrone Harrysingh is the food bank's Chief Operating Officer.

TYRONE HARRYSINGH: I have never seen this in all the time that I've been here. This year is essentially the worst in terms of the food shortage that we have seen. There used to be aisles and aisles of food.

ROSABELLE WALKER: I am on a fixed income. And I have to live on my social security check alone. I have no other income. When I have to go to my primary doctor, I have a co-pay. When I get my medicine every month, I have a co-pay. Plus my living expenses and with all of it combined, when I get my check on the third of the month, by the seventh, I have nothing.

TOM MCGARRY: I used to be able to buy anything I wanted. I had every credit card known to man. And I had a plenty of money every week. And I'd buy the best meats, the best vegetables, the best this and that. Now, they give me hotdogs or something, I cook them. I get peanut butter, crackers, and things. And sometimes I'll get a can of beef stew or something like that. And some - or maybe a can of soup and I use those things, and I eat it. But the foods I'm eating are simple foods. A lot of them are poor man's food. I was used to that when I was a kid. And I've gotten back to that.

ANNE CAREY-COLORADO: Tonight we're having hot dogs and scalloped potatoes and vegetables because that's what we had available today.

BILL MOYERS: Anne Carey-Colorado directs the Hope Community Services food pantry and soup kitchen.

ANNE CAREY-COLORADO: If a parent can't put food on the table to feed their children, and their children go to school hungry, the parent feels worthless. And that impacts on your ability to function on a daily basis. It impacts on your children's ability to perform at school. Or, if you can't feed yourself, and take care of yourself, it's very hard to feel good about yourself.

ANNE CAREY-COLORADO: And we're glad to see you back. You haven't been here in awhile.

WOMAN: A long time, yeah.

ANNE CAREY-COLORADO: A couple of months?

ANNE CAREY-COLORADO: A year ago in the kitchen, on a nightly basis, we'd have anywhere from 50 to 75 people. Now, we're averaging anywhere from 85 to 120 a night. Last Thanksgiving, in the kitchen, a year ago we had 150 people in for dinner. This year, we had 225. Previously it was primarily singles, whether its seniors or adults. Now the number of families has increased.

TOM MCGARRY: For a while, I was very cynical. I looked down my nose at a lot of people. But now I'm one of those people that I looked down on. And so I don't look down on anybody anymore.

ROSABELLE WALKER: I went to the supermarket and I left the supermarket and didn't buy anything because they had hamburger, there wasn't a package of hamburger in the whole meat thing that was less than four dollars. None of it! And every week you go to the market to buy food, they up the price, up the price, up the price, but nobody's upping nobody's salary. Right now at home in my house, my check is coming tomorrow to go marketing with. I got two halves of a green pepper in my freezer. Period. No food - I got some canned goods on the shelf - no food in the house. No money to go buy it. That's the condition. And if there was no pantries, you would find a lot of us wouldn't even have a green pepper in the freezer.

BILL MOYERS: That was April 2008. Every place we visited then tells us now that since the financial meltdown last fall the need has deepened dramatically. That BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger in Brooklyn was helping 6000 people a month when we were there. Now it's serving 10 thousand. That's an increase of more than 60 percent.

Folks at Hope Community Services in New Rochelle report a 45 percent increase. Rosabelle Walker, now 82 years old, still goes there. But now she gives what she gets to other people in her building. That's because two women from the Bronx who saw our report took Ms. Walker under their wing and have been helping out ever since.

She's a rare good news story. We've checked around the country - Mount Pleasant, Texas. Covington, Louisiana. Detroit, Denver, all report more and more mouths to feed. In Philadelphia, Bill Clark, who runs the largest food bank there, told The Inquirer that many new people are coming "terrorized," "in shock," "embarrassed" to be asking for a handout.

Meanwhile, it was reported last week that our government will spend 835 billion dollars this year on the economic bailout. The masters of finance who brought on this disaster seem not a whit embarrassed at handouts of such magnitude.

The only counter to such unrepentant avarice is public opinion fired by moral conviction. There's where the collective power of faith might yet signify. Many issues divide our religious traditions. But suppose they came together on this one cause, to put right what's wrong with a system where people must turn to charity because they can't count on justice. That's the heart of the social gospel taught at Union Seminary - and that's the radical message we anticipate hearing in a few days when Pope Benedict releases a major encyclical - a letter to his bishops - timed to next week's summit of the G8 industrialized nations in Italy.

The Pope has already spoken on some of these issues. Back in February he said, "It is the church's duty to denounce the fundamental errors that have now been revealed in the collapse of the major American banks."

The market economy, he has said, "Can only be recognized as a way of economic and civil progress if it is oriented to the common good," including a fairer distribution of resources and power.

When the pope's new encyclical is issued, we will link you to it on our Web site. Log onto and click on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. You'll also find there lectures by Cornel West, Gary Dorrien, and Serene Jones. That's it for the Journal. We'll be here again next week. I'm Bill Moyers.

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