TOPICS > Economy

More Americans Facing Hunger, Report Finds

November 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A new report found that almost 15 percent of U.S. households had trouble finding enough food in 2008. Jeffrey Brown speaks with experts for more.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: hunger in America. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: One in seven American households had a hard time putting enough food on the table last year, that from a new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — 14.6 percent of U.S. households, nearly 50 million Americans, found themselves in need during 2008, an increase of 13 million people from the year before. The new figure is the highest since data collection began in 1995.

The USDA called the problem food insecurity, instead of hunger. But, by any name, President Obama said, the findings were unsettling. And his secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said it’s a — quote — “wakeup call for the country.”

Inside those numbers, a more dire toll: One-third of those in need said they have been forced to skip meals, cut portions significantly, or go without food altogether.

Cynthia Sibley helps coordinate the Simple Supper, a community meal and food bank run from a Methodist church in Eagle, Colorado. She says the recession has affected many levels of her community.

CYNTHIA SIBLEY, Simple Supper: It’s hitting people that — it’s surprising a lot of us. And all of us here are feeling it in one way or another. And we know people who have either lost their homes, lost their jobs. It’s — you know, it’s shaking us to the core. And I know that there are a lot of places across the country that this is occurring, but to see it, you know, firsthand and experience it…

JEFFREY BROWN: Nationwide, the report said, 17 million children did not have enough to eat last year. And the Agriculture Department predicted the numbers for this year are likely to be worse still.

And now to some close-to-the-ground views from two regions. J.C. Dwyer is with the Texas Food Bank Network, a nonprofit statewide group. He joins us from San Antonio. Lynn Brantley is president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

Mr. Dwyer, I wonder, first, did this report surprise you, based on what you’re seeing there?

A worsening problem

J.C. DWYER, Texas Food Bank Network: Well, I wish I could say that the food banks were surprised, but the food banks tend to be the canaries in the coal mine of the national economy. So, we were actually seeing an increase several years ago, as this grew larger and larger. We knew that the numbers were going to be following soon enough. I would characterize this as less surprised and more, maybe, disappointed or frustrated, because we're doing so much at this point -- you know, we have put out over 200 million pounds across Texas last year -- and we're still seeing these numbers get worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you see it getting worse directly tied to the state of the economy, the recession?

J.C. DWYER: Absolutely. I mean, the recession didn't really happen in Texas until late last year. If you will recall, we had very high oil prices the summer before last. And that was really keeping things going in Texas. But now we're seeing the effects. And all the food banks have said that, over the last 12 months, they have seen an increase of about 30 percent statewide. So, we can expect those numbers to go up against next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Brantley, I understand you have been running your organization for a long time. I mean, how does this compare to what you have seen in the past?

LYNN BRANTLEY, Capital Area Food Bank: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we're saying thing here in Washington, D.C. We serve the metropolitan Washington area. But our agencies are seeing anywhere between 30 percent to 150 percent increases in terms of the number people that are coming to their door. So, it's the people who are losing jobs, people who are working two and three jobs, people losing homes, very dramatic.

A portrait of hunger

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that -- that fill that in a little. I want you to give us a portrait, if you can, of the kinds of people, and maybe how that has even changed. Who is coming?

LYNN BRANTLEY: Well, I -- you know, 37 years ago, I was working in -- with food stamps in Prince George's County. And we saw cuts in the food stamp program then, and the dramatic effect it had in the country at that point. And we have never really recovered or rebounded. But, back then, we were an emergency system. Now we have become an essential part of a family's being able to make it. It's a woman with children trying to make ends meet. It's a senior citizen who is living on a very minimum income. It's people who are losing their homes or losing their jobs. And it's being compounded now with the economy over and over again. High fuel prices, high food costs, those are the two things that have -- inflation has been hitting. And that's where people who are in need most, where it gets hit the hardest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Dwyer, you're -- you're dealing with urban and rural areas and statewide. Give us -- what do you see as the portrait or -- of folks that come to you? And how might have that changed over the last few years?

J.C. DWYER: Well, really, the face of hunger in Texas is the face of Texas. We're a very large state. We have a very diverse population. And all those people end up showing up at our lines. I mean, I agree with Ms. Brantley that, you know, a lot of these are really chronic cases, people who are underemployed or their wages aren't keeping up with the cost of living. And, so, we're being forced to provide supplemental food month after month, which is not what food banks were built to do. What we're best at is providing sort of innovative, flexible services to people who wouldn't otherwise get them from programs like food stamps or school meals. But, more and more, we're being asked to deal with the brunt of the problem. And, so, I would say, over the last year, the biggest change we have seen is that a lot of working-class families and people who have just lost their jobs are coming to the doors. And we're even seeing people who were donors a year ago are now coming, asking for help.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that's really the bigger -- it's the working poor you're talking about, people who the household is headed by somebody who has a job, but they're still having a hard time?

J.C. DWYER: Most recently, yes. They have either just lost their job or they're underemployed. Maybe they got their hours cut back as a result of the economy, or they just haven't gotten a raise in a bunch of years. And, you know, the costs of living has been going up and up, and, so, they haven't been able to make ends meet.

Economy's impact on food banks

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Ms. Brantley, what is your organization and others you talk to around the country, what are you able to do? And how might you be impacted by the economy?

LYNN BRANTLEY: How -- me personally?

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean your organization.

LYNN BRANTLEY: Organization? Well, what's -- the demand is great. And in terms of -- our donations are up, food donations are up. But it's up about 17 percent. But the numbers of -- that are going out is at a 30 percent rate higher than even last year. And, so, the press and the need is tremendous right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much -- explain where your funding comes from. I mean, how much -- so, a lot of it depends on donations?

LYNN BRANTLEY: Yes, it does. We're a private nonprofit organization. And we raised all of own money. We get no government funding. We are getting government help to build a new building to expand, but all of our operational expenses, we raised on our own.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Dwyer, what is it like for you, your organization? And how might that be impacted by the recession?

J.C. DWYER: Well, I would say that, traditionally, food banks in general -- and this may not hold for Ms. Brantley's food bank -- but, traditionally, the food banks have received about a third of their food straight from the government, that is, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third from donations, whether that's in the form of grants or, you know, money that individuals give or can drives. And the other third is from food retailers, places that have kicked pallets, or they have put the labels on the cans on upside down, or, for some other reason, the product is unsalable, and so they give it to us.

And, so, that's been the traditional sources of food. But, lately, the retailers have been getting better at what they do. They're not wasting as much food, which is great for them, but not so great for the food banks. And, so, more and more, our food banks in Texas are being forced to rely on small donors, small donations, as well as help from our government partners.

Parents cutting back for their kids

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Dwyer, can we separate out children for a moment? I mean, are there special programs available for them? Do you see them being affected more by what's going on now? What's the state there?

J.C. DWYER: Absolutely. I mean, a food-insecure family, which is what these 49 million are, is a family where often the parents will cut back before they cut back for the kids. But, often, these kids are in situations where they come home after school, and there's nothing in the pantry. So, the food banks try to fill that gap through programs that are funded by the government, like the child and adult care feeding program or the summer meals program, as well as privately funded programs, like weekend backpack programs and kids cafes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Ms. Brantley?

LYNN BRANTLEY: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. I mean, here in Washington, one of every two children is at risk of hunger. That's 50 percent of our children. And I think there was an article just recently in "The New York Times" where 50 percent of children in this country will have been on food stamps at one time or another. To me, that's a staggering number. And it shows where we're moving as a country. And we need to change that direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, this distinction -- I mentioned it in our setup -- between the terminology, food insecurity and hunger, now, I gather that has a long history of politics and scholarly debates over -- what is it, over counting, how we count, how we measure we things?

LYNN BRANTLEY: I think it definitely is how we count, in terms of USDA and the poverty levels and the allotment that you can get with food stamps and the daily -- the dollar amount that's allowed for that. So, there's been a long history over that. You're absolutely right. And, when you look at it, a family of four living at 185 percent of poverty is making about $40,000 a year. That's not very much to live on at all. So, you can see how a family would struggle, especially here in the Washington area. Now, throughout the country that, you know, figure might be a little different, but, a family of four, pretty tough to make it here in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Dwyer, just briefly, you're expecting things will -- this was a measurement as of -- I think was December 2008. So, are you expecting things to get worse now?

J.C. DWYER: Absolutely, at least according to what our food banks have been seeing. We have seen a 30 percent increase in the last year. And, so, this is a real wakeup call for us as food banks and I think as a nation to see that, you know, this is a problem that's beyond the food banks at this point. And we need to come up with bigger, better solutions. You know, there's obviously an opportunity coming up in Congress with the child nutrition reauthorization, where there's a chance for us to rewrite some of the rules on the major programs that deal with this problem. And, so, I think more and more of our food banks and across the nation are figuring out that this is the time to be talking to their legislators and making sure that hunger is a priority for the administration and for Congress in the coming year.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, J.C. Dwyer in San Antonio, Texas, Lynn Brantley here, thank you, both, very much.

LYNN BRANTLEY: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Our PBS colleagues in Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont are reporting on hunger in their communities. And you can find those stories by following links on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.