Gloucester County child poverty rates on the rise

Angela Feaster leaves St. Thomas Church with her children, Dave Degrilla Jr. and Albonie Winter.
Angela Feaster leaves St. Thomas Church with her children, Dave Degrilla Jr. and Albonie Winter. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 26, 2012

By 10 a.m. Saturday, at least 75 people had lined the sidewalk outside St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Glassboro. Some held infants, some waited in wheelchairs, and some helped the elderly carry canvas bags or push small carts.

They had all come for food.

Asked what was left in his kitchen at home, Tim, 13, giggled.

"Carrots," the Elk Township teen said. Not a favorite.

"Good morning, everyone," Vivian Hanson, the archdeacon's wife, shouted as she opened the door of the Gloucester County church. "Glad to see you all."

Just 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, amid the rolling farmland that produces some of the nation's largest peach and bell pepper crops, more Gloucester County parents are seeking help to feed their children, while others live in tents in the wooded areas near major shopping centers.

From 2010 to 2011, the rate of child poverty in Gloucester County more than doubled, a shocking statistic in a county where the median income is more than $72,000, according to census data. In 2011, 7,395 children in Gloucester County were living in families earning about $22,000 a year or less, up from 4,687 children in 2010, according to census figures.

"Gloucester County is a distinctly middle-class place," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester). "When you see those kind of numbers, it's a reflection of what's happening with the national economy."

Michelle Little, 32, a mother of three from Glassboro, waited with her 12-year-old daughter as the line at the church began to move. Her husband's unemployment checks ran out six months ago, she said, and state food assistance doesn't last the whole month.

"I just don't want to run out of food," she said.

This was her second visit to the monthly food pantry, which opened in July 2011 and typically runs out of food before people stop coming.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said people should recognize that it's not just children in cities who sometimes go hungry. One in three New Jersey children, or 631,000, now lives in a family of four earning less than $44,700, a benchmark used to measure poverty in an expensive state. That's an 18 percent increase since 2007.

"While we often link child poverty with urban areas, New Jersey does have rural poverty," she said. "It's Cumberland County that has the highest child poverty rate."

Gloucester isn't the poorest county in the state, and its overall rate of child poverty - about 11 percent - is below the state average of 15 percent.

But the recession hasn't spared its residents. A Sony plant, a mail sorting operation, and a Sunoco refinery all shut down within the last five years. Hundreds of good-paying jobs were lost.

"It's a new normal that makes me very uneasy," said Burzichelli, the former mayor of Paulsboro. "All the gains made by working people to climb into the middle class are very fragile right now."

The jump in the county's child poverty rates follows a decade of robust population growth. Gloucester grew faster than any other county in New Jersey between 2000 and 2010, according to census numbers.

Since the recession hit in 2008, the number of Gloucester County residents seeking food assistance has increased to 23,000, up from 17,000, said Ed Smith, superintendent of the county's social services division. Each month of the last two years, caseloads have increased about 15 percent to 20 percent, he said.

Smith expects the numbers may grow again as unemployment extensions run out.

"It certainly is more than it ever has been," he said.

The food pantry at St. Thomas, called Kitchen of Hope, has served more than 400 families, some of whom come repeatedly, church officials said. About a third of the more than 100 people who came for bread, meat, and vegetables on Saturday had never been to the pantry before.

First-timer Angela Feaster, 33, struggled to keep her 3-year-old, Dave, from running off as she stood in line with her two young daughters. Feaster works at an eyeglasses manufacturer in Glendora, taking as much overtime as she can, but it's not enough to pay rent, food and other costs, she said.

"I don't get Section 8; I've been on the list for six years," she said of low-income housing.

"The price of things goes up," she said. "I'm trying my hardest."

April Kephart, 33, lost her job as a Wawa manager when the West Deptford store shut more than a year ago. Her husband, Robert, a mechanic, can't cover all the household costs for his wife and three daughters, ages 9, 11 and 12.

Last fall, April moved the family to National Park to live with her father. The girls went to Paulsboro schools, where they had to wear uniforms. But the other kids still knew they were poor, said the oldest daughter, Tabitha.

"They still make fun . . . because there's classier uniforms," she said.

Asked if they were teased, she said, "Yeah. Lots."

The family moved in April, and this year the girls are attending Glassboro public schools, where they can wear what they want.

Saturday was the first time the family had come to the pantry to supplement food assistance, which had run out.

"They'll help you with something to get you through that last week of the month," April Kephart said.

By 11 a.m., about 50 of the brown grocery bags full of canned goods and bread were gone, and about two dozen plastic bags of meats donated from ShopRite and Bottom Dollar Foods remained. The boxed milk, cupcakes, and bags filled with collard greens and sweet potatoes were also gone.

"We started out with 40 families, and now today, there's 120 and sometimes we're still turning people away," said Jacqueline I. Jenkins, the pantry's treasurer. The group is hoping to join another church and begin offering food twice a month.

"When we're closing the doors, we have people running trying to get in because they need the food," said Hanson, who runs the pantry.

As Hanson talked in the church entryway, a man who appeared to be in his 60's walked out, arms full of grocery bags.

"Thank you," he said as he carefully descended the steps, one foot at a time. "You make me feel like I'm still worth having around."


Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com, or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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