Does a food crisis loom?
As pantries across Michiana struggle, Congress is on pace to drastically cut food support even more
By virginia black
Tribune Staff Writer
Stephan Morrow leans onto the wooden half-door, peering into the little room where Chassidy Hibbard stands, rattling off choices.
"Hamburger Helper or Tuna Helper?" asks Hibbard, coordinator of the food pantry housed in Broadway Christian Parish near downtown South Bend. Listening for his responses, she grabs a box off the shelf, sets it in a plastic grocery bag and slides over to the next sparse group of cans.
"Corn, creamed corn or olives?"
"Corn," Morrow says happily. "My kids love corn. They'll eat corn all day long if I let 'em."
Hibbard continues the process, businesslike. Nearly done, she peers into the refrigerator that has seen more plentiful times, offering Morrow either one of the few bags of lunch meat or the last small ham. The ham ends up in one of two plastic grocery bags Hibbard hands to him, nestled among peanut butter, instant potatoes, pork and beans, chicken noodle soup and spaghetti.
"That'll be $22.50," Hibbard says deadpan as she lifts the bags to him over the door.
"No problem," Morrow says cheerfully, in on the joke. The 56-year-old Army veteran and self-employed mechanic is here precisely because he doesn't have enough money to pay for food.
Not everyone is as good-natured about the limited offerings in Michiana food pantries lately.
"A lot of the people aren't too happy with me," Hibbard says matter-of-factly. "Sometimes 'We don't have it' isn't a good enough answer for them, like I'm supposed to pull it out of my hat."
A federal boost
Summertime is typically a struggle for food pantries, because private donations are usually lower then and children in poverty aren't reaping the benefits of free food at school.
But this summer, they're also keenly feeling the fallout of federal stimulus money for food commodities - which has supplemented many of the country's biggest pantries, in the neediest areas - drying up earlier this year, and "bonus" food drops from federal agriculture programs virtually drying up because of the higher price of fuel and cost of food.
The result, many local pantry organizers note with alarm, is that they're already scrambling to fill an ever-growing need - and cuts as high as 50 percent are on the table for the 2012 fiscal year, which arrives in October.
The U.S. House on Thursday afternoon passed House Resolution 2112, which included cuts to the Women, Infants & Children Program and a program that provides food for low-income seniors.
But also in the House bill was a more than 20 percent reduction for food and administrative costs for The Emergency Food Assistance Program, a program run by the USDA that helps the agricultural market by buying surplus food and sending it to states to distribute.
Now the Senate will begin debate over its own version of the bill. The two bodies will wrangle over the final proposal before sending it to the president, in a process that could take months.
In Indiana, the state's Department of Health orders and distributes the commodities food as part of TEFAP, including to the Food Bank of Northern Indiana. The Food Bank in turn distributes the food directly to its patrons and to local food pantries that qualify.
Not all food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters qualify for the government food, says Jaime Owen, agency relations manager for the Food Bank. Among the rules:
* The groups must serve anyone who has lived in Indiana for even one day, not just those in certain areas or ZIP codes.
* They can't require that anyone accept prayers or religious material or attend meetings.
* They can ask about - but not require proof of - income, food stamps or family size.
* The pantries must be open at least two hours a month, and they have had to exist at least two years.
Some small pantries qualify for TEFAP, Owen says, and larger pantries usually do. The USDA food is reliably fresh and high-quality, often rare staples such as meats, milk, orange juice, and fruits and vegetables.
In the first quarter of 2011, 45 percent of the 2,188,000 pounds of what flowed into local pantries through the Food Bank were those commodities.
Right now, the only government-supplied food in abundance in those pantries is corn.
'It just doesn't make any sense'
The last delivery to the Bread of Life Community Food Pantry in Plymouth - and to pantries throughout Indiana - was pallets and pallets of canned corn. It's a bit of a running joke among pantry volunteers now, because they're scrounging for almost everything else.
"We're trying to pick up the ingredients for corn pudding, give other ideas on how to use corn," director Terri Brandt says before opening up the pantry Monday night, where people always line up two hours early.
"I'm not political," Brandt says, as she and others in the food community watch the ongoing debate over federal spending. "But it feels as though they gave all those tax breaks to companies by taking money from people who aren't eating well anyway. It just doesn't make any sense."
Brandt, who says she fears the drastic cuts would lead to desperate people committing more crimes just to feed their families, thinks of the popular TV show "Undercover Boss," where bosses slip in among the workers unrecognized to see what really goes on in their companies.
"I would love to have a congressman in my food pantry tonight," she says. "I would love to have them look these people in the eyes and say, 'I'm going to cut your TEFAP. I'm going to not allow you to feed your kids.' "
Bettie Sally, a 55-year-old school bus driver preparing to take home some food from Broadway, shares the sentiment echoed by those running the pantries. Sally says she frequents food pantries when she can get a ride, and only in the summer months when her job takes a hiatus.
"It kind of makes you angry because you are a taxpayer. You want to go out and be working," she says of having to accept help and yet the possibility it might not be there later.
"How can you judge me when you haven't been in my shoes?" she says of those in Congress. "They need to get off their butt and get out and talk to people."
Elizabeth Shappell, spokeswoman for 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, said in a statement that Donnelly has consistently supported local food banks and events. He plans to send a representative to a meeting Owen of the Food Bank has called in late June with the 83 agencies the group works with.
"In these challenging economic times, I believe that we need to get our fiscal house in order," Donnelly said in the statement. "However, I have strong concerns about H.R. 2112 because of the deep cuts that serve Hoosiers in need. I understand that many food banks are stretched thin right now with increased demand and decreased donations; therefore I will continue to be an advocate for emergency food assistance and I encourage those in the community who can give to give what they can."
Donnelly, a Democrat, voted against the bill Thursday.
Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican, voted for the bill. His staff did not respond to a request for comment last week.
But in Michigan, Rich Glista, branch manager of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank in Benton Harbor, says TEFAP money is sent to other programs, rather than distributed to the state's food pantries and soup kitchens.
Nonetheless, with need there mirroring trends across the border, if money is cut to those programs, Glista says, "I would bet that their clients would be coming to our food banks."
A new clientele
Call up a local food pantry around Michiana, whether or not it benefits from USDA food, and its leaders will tell you the same facts:
* In the last three years, even in the last six months, they have been overwhelmed by a still-swelling need.
* And although they still see some of the same "generational poverty," they're struck by how many new patrons are in "situational poverty": those who have lost jobs or can't make ends meet with the jobs they now have.
"When people say the economy is better, I disagree," says Karen Anderson, director of First United Methodist Church's downtown food pantry.
The Food Bank's stores have been so low, even for the food that pantries buy more cheaply from it, that pantry volunteers are forced to buy retail as cheaply as they can with donations from the congregation and occasional drives. But it's still not enough.
On a recent Tuesday, of the 148 people who sought food at First UMC, 44 percent of them were new faces.
Over at Catholic Charities, where the numbers are also swelling, Barbara Burlingham says the pantry is seeing about 80 new households a month, which is how often a family is allowed to seek food at most pantries.
"We're seeing a different category of people coming in, too," she says. "We've always had single moms with kids, always had elderly people. But we're seeing an increase in middle-class people who either had jobs and now don't, or they've been downsized and are trying to pay their mortgage, too ... They're embarrassed to come and ask for help, don't know where to go."
Sue Church, a retiree and volunteer for First UMC's pantry, shops around weekly with her husband, looking for the best buys.
"You get people coming in crying," she says. "You just sit and talk to them. ... A couple of missing paychecks, and we could all be there."
Brandt, in Plymouth, speaks with passion about the need she sees several times a week, as she hears the stories of people losing their incomes, their homes and their cars.
"We've got to leave them their pride, we've got to leave them their dignity," she says.
"We just have to."
Staff Writer Virginia Black: email@example.com 574-235-6321
How you can help
Lists of food pantries
Want to donate your time or money, or do you know of someone who's looking for help? Go to our Neighbors in Need page at www.southbendtribune.com/news/neighbors/ for food pantries in Michiana.
Donate when you shop
Donations dropped into barrels at all Martin's Super Markets stores will benefit local pantries. A link to the stores is also at southbendtribune.com/news/neighbors/.
Let your representatives know how you stand on this issue. You can find contact information at southbendtribune.com/news/opinion/.
Shopping for windows?
Through August, if you make an appointment with Champion Windows, the company will donate 50 pounds of food to the Food Bank of Northern Indiana. For every new order, the company will give 100 pounds of food. For more information, see CloseTheWindowOnHunger.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times