Eat & Drink

Nation’s unseen scourge: Hunger

This article originally appeared in the Tuesday, May 29, 2007 edition of The Kansas City Star

Nada.

The young mom came to apply for food and child-care assistance. She spoke no English.

Line by line, bilingual caseworker Anna Lambertson reviewed the Spanish version of the woman’s 10-page application.

Anyone disabled in the household?

The woman shook her head.

What about resources? Cash? A checking account? Savings?

Livestock?

The young mom shook her head and smiled apologetically.

"Nada," she said.

Nothing.

What she did have was a $1,000-a-month job as a cook and a 2-year-old son, whom she brought with her to the Kansas Social and Rehabiliation Services office in Kansas City, Kan.

After the mother left, Lambertson calculated that rent and child care took up nearly all the woman’s salary.

Nothing was left for food.

Nada.

As Congress prepares to wrangle with reauthorizing the Farm Bill, which funds the food-stamp program, anti-hunger advocates are on high alert. Eager to generate public discussion during national Hunger Awareness Week, June 2-10, they worry about the more than 25 million Americans who use food stamps.

They also worry about those who do not.

About 80 percent of eligible Missourians get food stamps, one of the highest participation rates in the country. In Kansas, only slightly more than half the residents who are eligible use food stamps.

What keeps people away? Pride. Embarrassment. Misinformation. When they are hungry, people turn to last resorts -- shelters, pantries, senior centers -- all of which are served by Harvesters, the Kansas City area’s community food bank network.

Every week, Harvesters serves free food to 60,000 hungry people in the area. That is greater than the populations of Mission Hills, Leawood and Prairie Village combined.

"If we filled up Arrowhead Stadium with 60,000 (hungry) people, people would go, ‘Wow, we’ve got a problem here,’ " said Karen Haren, Harvesters’ director.

Rosa Fletcher makes about $400 a month at the St. James Place food pantry on Troost Avenue, where she processes the applications of people who come in for free groceries. Fletcher is 45, single and takes care of two cousins -- both 11-year-old boys. She gets $389 in food stamps each month, which breaks down to about $32 per person per week.

"We have soup kitchens around," Fletcher said. "But you want your own food in your own house."

Fletcher worked as a certified nurse assistant before she nearly lost her left eye three years ago in a car crash. She can’t drive now, so she finds a ride to work every day.

Fletcher prefers the freedom of shopping for her own groceries, but food stamps buy little freedom. At Happy Foods on 31st Street, her purchases often spring from frustrating choices.

Fletcher’s doctor has told her to lose weight to lower her blood pressure and cholesterol. She also is diabetic. Medicine to treat those conditions costs about $365 a month, which eats up nearly all her salary.

Fletcher told her doctor she couldn’t afford to lose weight. In the produce section at Happy Foods, Fletcher pointed to a $1.99 head of cauliflower.

"How can I go on a diet?" she asked. "Tomatoes are $1.49 a pound."

Her cousins love grapes, but a prepackaged tray costs $3.17. Fletcher buys canned fruit cocktail instead.

Though she will pass on the 5-pound bags of hot dogs for $7.99 -- "That’s ridiculous," she said -- Fletcher will buy lots of chicken necks because they are meaty and cheap. She can get four or five meals out of a $3 package.

"It’s not the best thing for your diet, but it stretches a meal," she said.

Outside of hunger-awareness campaigns, who considers the staggering number of hungry people? The hungriest among us are fed out of sight, anonymously.

Please take a number.

And wait.

The clients at the Bishop Sullivan Center’s food pantry on Truman Road hear their numbers called one by one.

"No. 7."

That’s an old man in jeans and a baseball cap.

"No. 21."

That’s a middle-aged couple; the man wears a Chiefs T-shirt.

Nos. 36 and 37 are two women wearing Islamic hijabs.

Most clients avoid eye contact when they walk in the lobby. They don’t smile. They sit and wait.

Thirty minutes. Forty minutes. An hour.

On a busy day, it can take that long before the clients can go around the back of the building to get their free bags of groceries -- two bags of dry foods, one bag of government commodities and one bag of bread and meat for a family of four, for instance. No one smiles here.

"Why would they?" asked manager Geno Olmedo.

On this day, Olmedo packs canned vegetables, instant noodles, organic raisin bran and burrito dinner kits for the families. Olmedo manages to pack more groceries into one bag than would seem possible. Over the years, he has mastered filling the bags so he can give his clients as much food as he can. A lucky few will find a grocery-store birthday cake or a pie tucked in their brown paper sacks.

Because recipients cannot use food stamps to buy paper products or personal-care items, Olmedo adds those things when he has them. Some days clients walk out with rolls of toilet paper sticking out of their sacks.

Olmedo says it’s a shame that people have to live like this, but there’s only so much he can do. The Bishop Sullivan Center can give groceries to 50 families a day, first come, first served. Clients know to get to the center around 1:30 p.m., when the 2½-hour distribution process begins. It lasts as long as there is food.

When the food is gone, workers hang a red stop sign on the door.

"Sorry!" it reads. "So many came in for food earlier that the pantry is closed for the rest of today."

The stop sign is on the door most days.

FOOD-STAMP STATISTICS KANSAS

184,000 people receive food stamps each month

Average monthly benefit per person: $84.39, or $21.10 a week.

Participation rate (2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last official count): 55 percent.

The USDA estimates that every $5 in new food-stamp benefits generates $9.20 in economic activity. If Kansas increased participation 5 percent, that would generate $15.1 million more in economic activity.

MISSOURI

Nearly 790,000 people receive food stamps each month.

Average monthly benefit per person: $75.63, or $18.90 a week.

Since 2000, food-stamp participation has risen 81.1 percent.

Participation rate (2003): 76 percent.

NATIONAL (USDA, as of 2003)

About 80 percent of food-stamp benefits go to households with children.

About 23 percent go to people with disabilities.

About 18 percent go to households with elderly.

About 90 percent of the food-stamp households have income below the poverty level. ($18,100 for a family of four in 2002.)

About 38.4 percent have gross incomes at or below half of the poverty level.

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send e-mail to

lgutierrez@kcstar.com

. Sources: Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, Missouri Association for Social Welfare, Sources: Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, Missouri Association for Social Welfare, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvesters.

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