They shiver in the crisp winter chill, stamping their feet to stay warm. They huddle in the driving spring rain, soggy and patient. When the humid summer sun draws the moisture from the earth, they stand in line sweating. They are beyond wanting food. They need it. They will arrive at a mobile food pantry at 8 a.m. even though it doesn’t open until noon, and they will wait in good weather and bad, hoping to receive enough to help feed their children. If any is left over, they will eat, too.
Today in America, nearly one in six people — and one in five children — is food insecure, a term the USDA defines as lacking “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Loretta Griffis, director of community outreach for Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville, has a simpler definition.
“To us, it means they’re hungry,” she said. “It means maybe they had a banana for breakfast, but they don’t know if they’re going to have anything else.”
Griffis, a woman with silver hair and sky-blue eyes, is easily moved to tears when talking about the people she helps every day.
“Unless you actually know somebody who’s hungry or you are hungry, you don’t think about it,” she said. “These people can’t afford food, so how are they going to buy soap, detergent, toilet paper?”
As she spoke, a radio in her office played Christmas music quietly in the background. A woman sang in an oversweet tone, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. They are people like Sonny, a 72-year-old life-long resident of Gainesville. For 25 years, he sat behind the wheel of a city bus, ferrying the ever-changing populace of Gainesville from place to place. Now retired and on a fixed budget, he relies on food pantries twice a month.
“I thank God for (the food pantry),” he said. “There’s times that I’m down to those last few dollars. It’s an added bonus, much needed. People say, ‘I have to pay for this bill, I have to pay for this medication, and then I’ll get food.’ It’s a reality, and I’m living it partly right now. You come to realize that this is the life that you got. You can’t live it as fulfilling as you desire, but you live it as it comes.”
Food insecurity is a growing problem in America — according to USDA studies, the trend in hunger has gone upward since 1995, including a steep increase after the Great Recession of 2007 that has not abated despite other signs of economic recovery. What once was considered largely a problem for the homeless has now become a regular part of life for a significant portion of the country. Most people who rely on food banks and pantries are at least partially employed. They are the working poor — households where one or more adults have jobs that do not pay enough to keep food on the table. One part of the problem is that wages have not kept up with the cost of living. Other factors are similar to the causes of mass hunger during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s — economic meltdown, a vanishing middle class and climate change.
These problems have hit parts of Florida particularly hard. One in three children in north Florida and nearly half of all households in the region are food insecure, according to a 2014 study by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. More than 10 percent of those households lack stoves, hot plates and means of refrigeration, and the majority earn less than $10,000 per year.
In Gainesville, as in thousands of other cities nationally, a complex system of organizations exists to help deal with these issues. At the center of that system is Bread of the Mighty, a partner of Feeding America. Because it is a food bank, it supplies pantries rather than people, although as Griffis said, “We don’t turn anyone away.”
Joe Manasco, director of child nutrition programs for Bread of the Mighty, explained, “A lot of kids rely on school lunches and breakfasts, so when school is out, there’s a lot of strain on parents’ budgets. We work with the DOA to open feeding sites for those kids. We go into local churches, their apartment complexes — basically, anywhere they will let us in and there is need.”
During the summer, Manasco helps feed approximately 2,000 kids a day.
Bread of the Mighty also trucks food to local pantries like Gainesville Community Ministry, which buys the supplies for 18 cents a pound. Then, with help from the University of Florida nutrition department, GCM portions out balanced meals — including meats, vegetables, fruits and grains — and fills boxes depending on client need, with enough for each member of a household.
“We’re going to see 22,000 people in a year’s period of time, and almost 9,000 of those will be children,” said Executive Director Michael Wright.
At GCM, people come nearly every day to receive the boxes, along with job counseling, medical care, GED classes and other services. Wright said of these services, “You can’t just give someone food if they don’t have a place to live, clothes to put on and a means
to make extra income, otherwise you’ve just enslaved them to the system that’s designed to help them. That’s my fear; I don’t want to do that.”
Sitting in the GCM waiting area one morning was Charles, a 45-year-old man who, like Sonny, is a life-long resident of Gainesville. Charles lives in the Porters Community neighborhood with his girlfriend, who does custodial work at the University of Florida, and his children, ages 4 and 11. Both children take advantage of free breakfast and lunch programs during the school year.
Charles works day labor when he can get it.
“You get up five o’clock in the morning to go to the day-labor place, and you stay down there ‘til they send you out to work,” he said. “If they don’t get no work, you done sat down from five o’clock in the morning ‘til like 8:30, you know what I mean? It’s rough. You come back the next day, try it again.”
During the month of November, he found just four days of work. He also receives SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. In 2013, the average monthly SNAP benefit was $133.07, which is less than $1.50 a meal. For many people like Charles, it isn’t enough.
Whenever Charles can’t find work as a day laborer, he fills out job applications using computers at the library, but prospects are slim because he is an ex-felon. At GCM, he receives a list of jobs that hire ex felons — Burger King, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut.
“Any job is better than no job,” he said. “I’m going to work whatever job I can get.”
If all else fails, Charles donates plasma twice a week. He gets $20 for each donation.
As far as his children are concerned, he tells them “nothing” about the family’s financial state.
“They too young to know about that anyway,” he said. But each day, he must navigate the pressure of simply keeping them alive and making sure there’s enough left over to feed himself as well.
Looking at the national hunger data, meeting people like Sonny and Charles, watching pantry volunteers pack food for children who rarely know where their next meal will come from, one is reminded again of the confluence of circumstances that brought about mass hunger in the 1930s. During those years, John Steinbeck followed the working poor as they fled the Dust Bowl and went west searching for jobs and food. From that experience, he wrote “The Grapes of Wrath,” which includes these lines: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”
Nearly a hundred years later, those words still belong to us.