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Government, Politics & Issues

The hungry among us: Advocates say it's time to pay attention to local poverty

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2013 - If not for a nearby food pantry, Laura Craig of Valley Park says that she and her two daughters would run out of food by the end of every month.

Craig is among nearly 1 million Missourians who received federally funded food stamps in November. To stretch those benefits, Craig says she depends on the nearby Circle of Concern food pantry, where once a month she receives a week’s supply of canned and packaged foods, frozen meats and fresh produce. The food pantry serves more than 2,200 people each month in western St. Louis County.

"I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have them. I really don’t. It’s not like I can go to the grocery store and say 'I need help,' ’’ said Craig, 39, who is disabled and unable to work. "It gets barren toward the end of the month, but because of Circle we have food. The people who work there are amazing.’’

Local social workers say Craig’s experience is more the rule than the exception. The monthly food stamp benefit – which averages $128 a state recipient – is often supplemented by nonprofit food banks and pantries that have expanded in recent years to keep up with needs. The numbers are striking:

  • The St. Louis Area Foodbank estimates that 1 in 8 people in the bi-state region need food assistance. The foodbank serves about 57,000 people every week through its food fairs and network of 500 partner agencies.
  • Operation Food Search estimates that it feeds 150,000 people every month through its distributions to 250 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Nearly half of those served are children.

Dining on $1.42

The average monthly Missouri food stamp benefit ($128.03) a recipient works out to about $1.42 a meal. Based on this week’s grocery ads, $1.42 could buy:

* A can of chili (98 cents) or a can of soup ($1)

* A sack of salad (98 cents)

* Three oranges  (3/$1).

* Food stamps can be used to buy most food products but no alcoholic beverages, tobacco or hot prepared foods. (Food stamps can't be used at fast food restaurants, despite a recent push by those companies.)

As a small in-house experiment, the Beacon asked some of its staff to keep a one-day food diary. The average spent on a meal: $5.26, far above the $1.42 a food-stamp recipient should try to live on.

Food pantries – originally started as providers of emergency resources -- have become staples for struggling Missourians, said Glenn Koenen, the retired director of Circle of Concern who now heads a task force on hunger for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare (MASW).

"For so many families, a monthly visit to the food panty is part of the routine they need to survive -- just like going to the grocery store or going to the gas station,’’ he said. "Pantries have become part of everyday life instead of a place you go in case of an emergency.’’

Koenen applauds the massive efforts of local food banks and neighborhood pantries that have stepped up to meet growing needs, but he believes those successes can also mask the depth of poverty.

Renee Marver, chair of the Community Against Poverty (CAP), agrees with that assessment. She said that increasing public awareness of hunger and policies that impact poor and economically struggling St. Louians will be emphasized at a Friday conference: "Where Justice and Charity Meet: Fighting Hunger in St. Louis.’’

Marver is chairing the event, which is sponsored by a coalition of organizations, including the MASW and CAP, which is an interfaith partnership convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council in 2008 to focus on poverty issues.

Marver said the event coincides with area commemorations of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for a reason.

"He spoke about the lack of dignity. The lack of equal opportunity. Racism. Those kinds of things certainly are part of where we are,’’ she said. "I still meet people at times who have very bad views of people who are without -- and who feel nothing for them. Martin Luther King said we are all responsible for the condition of each other.”

Who needs help?

According to statistics from the Missouri Department of Social Services, 938,507 Missourians -- about one in six -- received $120 million in food stamps in November through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program:

  • About 30 percent of those food stamp recipients live in the St. Louis area.
  • Nearly one-third of the residents of St. Louis city -- 110,000 of 318,000 residents -- received food stamps. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 26 percent of St. Louis residents have incomes below the poverty level, which is $11,170 for an individual and $23,050 for a household of four.)
  • About 12 percent of the populations of St. Louis, Jefferson and Franklin counties received food stamps. (About 10 percent of the residents in those counties are below the poverty line.)
  • In St. Charles County, 21,054 people received food stamps, about 5 percent of residents. 

"Most people probably know someone getting food stamps, but it’s not something people admit even to their friends,’’ Koenen said. "With roughly one person in six in the state getting food stamps it’s pretty impossible not to bump into people getting food stamps at work, at school, at church and so on. People don’t realize they know somebody going to a food pantry. We don’t give out stickers that say, ‘I’m poor; I went to a food pantry today.’ ‘’

 

Koenen worked at Circle of Concern from 1995 through 2012 when he retired and ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He has been tracking food stamp statistics for years and notes that the Great Recession added many underemployed to the rolls of Americans needing monthly food assistance.

Although unemployment numbers have continued to drop -- the rate is now 7.3 percent in metropolitan St. Louis, the lowest in four years -- the number of food stamp recipients has remained steady. The state’s food stamp totals dropped by about 17,000, compared to November 2011 but was still 7,000 above November 2010.

Koenen attributes the need to the lasting impact of the loss of manufacturing jobs, such as the closing of the Chrysler plant in Fenton in 2009. He said many displaced autoworkers eventually found employment but at much lower wages. Some still come to the Circle of Concern for assistance.

"We are not creating enough jobs paying good enough wages to take care of families. That’s the sad part,’’ he said.

Koenen warns that nonprofit food banks and pantries have their limits.

"It’s getting to the point where we may not be able to feed all of the people because the resources we need are so great, compared to what’s available. We’re seeing too many people come in, and nothing seems to slow it down,’’ he said.

Beyond the middle class

Marver said that a second focus of the Friday conference will be to improve the communication between local nonprofits working toward the same goal.

"It’s becoming more critical that there be a communication system among providers to better serve those who are in need,’’ she said.

"We’ve been so concerned with the middle class -- and I understand that -- but there has been a fear of mentioning people who are so poor. And their issues need to be addressed as well,’’ she said. "We’ve got to get that word out and face it. You can’t just cut all those programs for a balanced budget and destroy families.’’

Marver is also hoping to expand the current political conversation to include discussions of poverty and hunger.

Among the speakers at Friday’s conference will be: Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former state representative and executive director of the Missouri Association of Social Workers; Josh Protas of the national nonprofit MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; Frank Finnegan, executive director of the St. Louis Area Foodbank and Sunny Schaefer, executive director of Operation Food Search.

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