Food-relief agencies across the country spent the better part of today poring over documents that tell them what they already know and have known for months, if not longer: There are more people going hungry in this country than there were in 2006, the last time Feeding America commissioned a Hunger in America study. Locally, the North Texas Food Bank -- which serves 291 member agencies and clients, ranging from soup kitchens to after-school programs to AIDS resource centers and so forth -- issued its own 307-page report based upon the Feeding America findings. They are staggering. As in:
Children under the age of 18 make up 39 percent of the households served by the food bank; 7 percent are younger than 5. Only 29 percent of those households served have at least one employed adult living in the house; four years ago; 40 percent of households had at least one person working. And 40 percent of NTFB clients must choose between food and medicine or medical care. The list goes on and on and on.
The report, says NTFB president and CEO Jan Pruitt, "puts numbers to what we were feeling. That's a big thing. Our food bank and our agencies were feeling this real push, and we knew the numbers were going up, and the study kind of validated what we were feeling. It validated that even though people say, 'Well, Texas wasn't hit as bad as the rest of the country.' But when you see an 11-point drop in households having at least one employed adult, I said, 'That's real.' I am questioning if Texas was not hit that hard is a true thing or not. It may be true for the middle-income and above, but not for the working poor and those who've lost their jobs. I hate to use the 'two Americas' thing, but there are two Texases and two Dallases."
I asked Pruitt, who's been at the food bank for the past 13 years and has worked in hunger-relief for the past 20 years, if there was anything in the report that surprised her at this late date. She said she was stunned by the number of people forced to choose between food and medicine.
"And I see this all the time -- today, even," she tells Unfair Park. "There was a woman in here today. Her partner has a master's degree in neuroscience and had a normal healthy life, but she was hit by the flu, and two years later she's laying in the hospital with a double-lung transplant. Her prescription -- which keeps her alive -- costs more than her income. That, to me, is the reality that I think is bigger than we know. This isn't a senior citizen on Medicaid.
"She literally needs these pills to stay alive. It's not a choice between X or Y. She needs the medicine. If there wasn't Allen Community Outreach, this white female who's 32 with a master's degree would not be eating. That piece is very sobering -- to realize that there are a lot of people immune to that reality. Most people think they'll be OK if it happens to them. But the bulk of us are vulnerable.
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"Most poeple think hunger is something that happens to others based upon their own poor decisions," Pruitt continues. "They didn't get an education, they don't work hard enough, they have an alcohol problem, they're homeless. This report says, 'That's not true. The hungry look like me and you.' Our message is we better have a strong safety net and that safety net is being torn apart little by little every day."
I asked Pruitt if she's worried. Because, after all, the NTFB has a $16 million budget -- and fund-raising efforts in November and December, when people usually donate money, fell well short of goals. As in: $900,000 short.
"I am worried," she says. "I've been doing this a lot of years, and I've seen a lot of ups and downs. I've seen the whole hunger movement change from emergency assistance programs to chronic hunger relief, but the distribution we have now I am not sure is sustainable -- it's certainly not in an emergency. I will say, in my 20 years in this business, I am more concerned about next year than I've ever been because I don't think these numbers will go down.
"I need to have the money to purchase the food so that 9,000 kids get a backpack on Friday, and I am not going to be the person who tells one of those schools, 'We're not going to have a backpack program next year.' I think about that one kid getting a backpack on Friday. About 38,000 kids are fed through our pantry system each month, and if I don't have the right food on shelves, well, I have a 10-year-old granddaughter, and that's the face I see. It's like Apollo 13: We gotta work the problem. And the problem is I need more money and more food, and I have great faith it will come. The problem today is I don't know where it will come from."