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More emergency food assistance going to working Americans, study finds

August 18, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Roughly one in seven people in the United States rely on food banks or other charitable organizations for basic nutrition, according to a new study by the nonprofit Feeding America. That number includes 25 percent of active military families, and an increased number of adult college students. Deborah Flateman, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the crisis.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: New we look at the challenge of hunger in America.

A study released today by the nation’s largest food bank network paints a grim picture.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: That report by the nonprofit group Feeding America found that roughly one in seven people in the country, 46 million people, rely on food banks or other charitable organizations for basic nutrition. They included some 620,000 military households and an increased number of adult college students.

Food bank clients come from all demographic groups, in suburbs, as well as urban areas. And many report facing the choice between buying food and paying for utilities, rent, medicine and other necessities.

Joining us is Deborah Flateman. She’s the executive director of the MARYLAND FOOD BANK and a board member of Feeding America.

Welcome to you.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN, President & CEO, Maryland Food Bank: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a general level first, what do we learn from this report about who is hungry in America?

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: You know, honestly, from my point of view, it verifies what we have been seeing trending over the past few years. I think one of the most significant pieces of data tells us that more than half of the people who are accessing food through the emergency feeding system, including food banks and food shelves, are people who are working.

JEFFREY BROWN: That have jobs.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s not enough.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: That’s right, it’s not enough.

We have been seeing that anecdotally through our agencies for several years now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, I mean, it’s interesting to compare it to the height of the recession. Things have gotten better in some ways. People might even have jobs, but still not abating.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Right.

An interesting example of that is recently the steel mills in Baltimore, for instance, closed down. And so the folks who are going to be able to find employment have to go through retraining. We’re sending tractor-trailer loads of food over to help them out on a monthly basis because even if they retrain and reenter the market, they’re not going to make the level of income that they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re in Maryland.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: A relatively well-off state.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Exactly. So isn’t it shocking that, you know, some 10, 11 percent of Maryland population are people who are living on the emergency feeding assistance program?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s also interesting and it’s something we have looked at, at the programming of the last year, that this is not in any way just an urban phenomenon anymore.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: No, that’s very true.

In fact, you know, we see that it’s even an added layer of difficulty for those who live in rural areas, because access to food is more difficult in those areas. If you don’t have transportation, you can’t get to your local food pantry. So, you know, we’re very concerned with that as well. JEFFREY BROWN: A couple of populations on this report really jumped out at us here and I think would surprise a lot of people. One is the number of military families.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see happening?

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: You know, I know that in Maryland, for instance, you know, we have got a high concentration of bases. We have got a lot of military in Maryland. And, you know, we’re about — over 6 percent of all of the people that we serve are people who are in active military, right?

You know, what do I make of it? I think that, you know, people of all types are falling on hardship. And once they fall, it’s difficult to get yourself out. You know, the cost of living in Maryland is very high. It’s not surprising to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of needs do they have? Are they similar to others?

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Yes, they are families just like every other family that we see at our agency.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another population is college students. Now, these are mostly adult students.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Yes. Yes.

Well, you can imagine. You’re trying to go through that advanced degree. You might be married. You’re living in married housing. You know, you’re doing the work that you need to do, not necessarily making the money that you actually need to sustain. So it is not surprising.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tell us how all this impacts the work that you and other food banks around the country are trying to do.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Well, you know, a couple of things, I would say.

One is, we were concerned about the condition health wise of many of the people who responded to this study, that a large passage of people have diabetes. A large percentage had high blood pressure. A lot of that has to do with the high cost of food and spending money on cheaper, less healthy food, just so that their dollars can go farther.

So from our perspective, if we can get a more nutritious mix out into the field, lots of fresh produce — so we have been focusing on — I know Feeding America is very focused on building our produce program, because that is going to be our answer to rounding out nutrition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this was one of the sadder aspects to the report, the way it looks, is that people are — they say they’re making poor choices. They know they’re making poor choices in terms of the lack of health in the food.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re not buying the most healthy food.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because they can’t, or because it’s not accessible, because of price? Why?

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: I think it’s because of price. I think they’re just trying to meet the immediate need of hunger in the least expensive way. And it means that — and it also has a lot to do with access.

And so the other thing that we’re focusing on is, what are we doing as a food bank network to make sure that we’re getting adequate amounts of food into every area that we serve? I know food banks across the country are building out mobile food pantry programs. And, you know, we do a lot of things with summer feeding for youth, for instance, taking hot meals out to kids, you know, during the summertime and after school. So it is meeting people where the need is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the support that you get? Is it enough? Are you having to find new ways to raise money and to get food?

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: You know, we — yes, you always have to find new ways.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: That was an easy question.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: To find food and funds. Yes, it was.

But, you know, I’m just really encouraged and this study is going to help a lot, I think, bringing to light for the general public that, if we get behind this movement of ending hunger, we can actually end hunger in this country. And I truly believe it. So, let this data speak to all of us and let all of us get involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Deborah Flateman of the Maryland Food Bank, thank you so much.

DEBORAH FLATEMAN: Thanks, Jeff.