Survey shows 46.5 million aided by food banks

Posted: August 23, 2014

Even as the economy recovers, the number of hungry Americans is increasing, with working people, military members, children, and the elderly among those suffering from lack of food.

Those findings are in a major survey of people who use food pantries commissioned by Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization. A new report comes out every four years.

The 2014 report shows that one in seven Americans, or 46.5 million people, received food from a Feeding America food bank. The 2010 report had found one in eight people, or 37 million people.

The report echoes hardships seen in Philadelphia, where food pantries saw a 23 percent increase in need between 2012 and 2013, local experts say.

Overall, nearly 90 percent of all households with children that use food pantries reported being food insecure - not having enough food in a year to live a healthy life.

The survey, "Hunger in America 2014," was praised by hunger experts as an invaluable glimpse into how people struggle to put food on their tables.

Feeding America surveyed more than 60,000 clients of food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior centers, as well as 30,000 people who work in those agencies. The survey was conducted between October 2012 and January 2013.

The agencies get their food from Feeding America's 202 regional food banks nationwide. Philabundance is this area's Feeding America food bank.

Increasing need is not a surprise, given the rise in demand for food among Philabundance's 400 food pantries between 2012 and 2013, said officials at Philabundance, which serves Philadelphia and its suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"We're seeing a real growth in hunger," said George Matysik, director of government affairs at the agency, "especially in lower Northeast Philadelphia, a former middle-class stronghold where there have been record foreclosures." Matysik said other areas of concern include Oak Lane and some inner-ring suburbs such as Upper Darby.

Most households that use food pantries in this region have a person who works, Matysik said.

But, Matysik said, hard times are becoming harder, and a job is no guarantee that a family will be food-secure.

In Philadelphia particularly, "we're seeing more and more working poor using food pantries - people who are doing everything they can to get by," Matysik said. Some 52 percent of Philabundance households live on annual salaries of $10,000 or less, Matysik said.

More than 60 percent of area food pantries ran out of food or were compelled to distribute less food to clients between 2012 and 2013, according to Laura Wall, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Nationwide, the Feeding America report shows that hunger is hurting a wide swath of the country - not just those mired in multigenerational poverty.

"The report affirms that those who are hungry are a lot different than the popular perception," said Billy Shore, founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit focused on ending childhood hunger in America.

Specifically, Shore said, the report shows that 33 percent of households using pantries contained at least one senior, while 20 percent had at least one member who was either a veteran or is serving in the military.

Of the households with a member now serving in the military, 25 percent have a person using a food pantry.

"That's really shocking," said Shore. "It gives people the sense that the hungry are not just the homeless, or the unemployed, but people serving our country."

Also surprising was the finding that as much as 6 percent of U.S. food-pantry users have four-year college degrees or even advanced degrees, experts said.

So many people also described facing difficult trade-offs to feed their families. For example, 66 percent of respondents said they had to choose between food or medicine in the last year.

Forty percent said they dilute food and drinks with water to help make it last, while 35 percent say they have pawned or sold property just to get their family something to eat.

Most food-pantry users are white (43 percent); 26 percent are African American, and 20 percent are Hispanic. More than half are at or below the poverty level ($19,790 annually for a family of three). Almost 30 percent own their homes.

Because the new Feeding America survey was conducted so differently than the last one released in 2010, it's impossible to compare most of the findings in each, according to Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based charity.

Still, the report illuminates the fact that hunger is "far too prevalent," according to Jen Adach, a spokeswoman for the Food Research and Action Center, the largest antihunger advocacy group in America.

Shore agreed, adding, "We can't be a strong America if we have this type of weakness in our society."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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