March 23, 2004
Agencies Say Hunger on Rise Outside Cities Across Region
By ADRIENNE LU
Deanna S. London, executive director of the Human Needs Food Pantry in Montclair, N.J., sorting bags of food. The pantry distributes fresh produce and meat, as well as canned and dry foods.
Come payday, the tough choices begin for Roxie Jackson. Her salary as a physical therapist's assistant has sustained her family of five in the middle-class suburb of Bloomfield, N.J., since her husband lost his job two years ago and income from her second job, with Mary Kay, declined before she eventually left it. So each week, Ms. Jackson weighs which bills she must pay and which must wait. And one factor is ever-present in her budget deliberations: hunger.
"My refrigerator and cupboard have been bare more than once," said Ms. Jackson, 35, who said that her home telephone has been disconnected since last year because she could not afford to pay for both utilities and groceries. "It's still a struggle."
According to hunger experts and federal statistics, a growing number of suburban families are struggling to put food on their tables.
Nationally, the rate of households facing limited or uncertain availability of food, what the federal government calls food insecurity, has been rising, reaching its highest point in four years. From 1999 to 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of such households rose by about 15 percent, or about 1.5 million, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, bringing the number to just over 12 million. On the surface, hunger may seem more severe and more intractable in the hearts of the largest cities. But experts say that more and more people who live in suburban and outlying areas are also having to make hard choices that sometimes leave them scrambling for their next meal.
Nationwide, the number of suburban households facing food shortages rose by roughly a quarter-million from 2001 to 2002.
The number of people receiving food stamps in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York grew almost 11 percent in 2003 from 2002.
Hunger in the suburbs is far from a new phenomenon. But today, those showing up at suburban food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the metropolitan region are more likely than ever to include working families, experts say.
"There's a changing face of hunger, in the sense that more working people need help now than before," said Meara Nigro, a spokeswoman for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
Charlene Nickle, 52, for example, has turned to the Human Needs Food Pantry in Montclair, N.J., where she lives, to help feed the three grandchildren she raises, who are 8, 10 and 14. Each week, she visits the pantry to pick up fresh fruits, vegetables and meats, when they are available, along with canned goods, rice, powdered milk and cereal.
"It really, really makes a great big difference in my food budget," she said.
Before she took custody of her grandchildren in 1999, Ms. Nickle worked as a secretary. To take care of the children after school, she said, she quit her job and took a pay cut to became a home health aide.
Patty Dowling, executive director of Shoreline Soup Kitchens, which serves 11 coastal towns in Connecticut, estimates that 80 percent of her clients are working, mostly in low-wage jobs with no benefits.
"There are all sorts of invisible people here that folks just refuse to see - it could be gardeners, people living in the back of restaurants, lawn people, it could be the person working at the local grocery store who's making minimum wage," she said.
A few years ago, Maritza Rosa, was a single mother on welfare struggling to feed eight children. "I know firsthand how it is to have food stamps run out and have no place to go," she said. "It's either you pay a bill or you don't feed your kids." Now, Ms. Rosa works as the assistant director of the Father English Community Center Food Pantry in Paterson, N.J.
Like many food pantries, Father English asks for identification and proof of income to verify that clients are truly needy.
In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, food banks - which collect food from manufacturers and the Agriculture Department and distribute it to charities - have reported an increased demand for food, particularly since 2001.
Lynn Needelman, executive director of Long Island Cares, a food bank on Long Island, said the demand is the greatest she has seen in her 17 years there.
Experts agree that hunger in the United States is not typically severe to the point where people are suffering malnourishment, but some disagree about how serious the problem is. For example, a recent report issued by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy and research organization in Washington, concluded that nearly all hunger in the United States is short-term and episodic rather than continuous.
But for some suburban residents, the reality is different.
Hunger relief groups throughout the New York region report helping people for longer periods as they wait through longer periods of unemployment, or are forced to take jobs that pay less than they once made, changing the nature of emergency food help.
Patti Perry, 40, lives in Montclair despite the high cost because she wants her seven children to be in good schools.
Ms. Perry, who is raising her children on her own, was laid off from her job with a telecommunications company at the end of February but has since been rehired in a different position. She makes "a pretty decent salary," she said, but between bills and her monthly rent of $1,850 for a one-bedroom home that she has converted to four bedrooms, her paycheck never seems to go far enough.
At first, Ms. Perry said, she was reluctant to go to the Human Needs Food Pantry. After all, she had a college education and a job. But that was 13 years ago.
"When I first started coming, I felt kind of funny, because we had to stand outside," Ms. Perry said. "Now I'm just grateful for it."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company