Hunger Study Stresses Emergency Need

One in eight Americans is at risk for hunger according to Feeding America, our national food bank network. Unfortunately, this statistic is reflected locally through people seeking food assistance at an alarming rate. Hunger in America 2010, a study released in February, estimated that 148,000 people seek emergency food assistance in Southern Arizona every year.

It’s important to note that the study is only referring to emergency food assistance from pantries, shelters and soup kitchens. People participating in non-emergency food programs, for example foster care providers, school programs, senior centers, families receiving food stamps (SNAP), Food Plus or WIC, were not included in the study.

One of the statistics that surprises us repeatedly at the food bank is the number of people that are employed but cannot meet their household food needs. An astounding 57% of people interviewed at soup kitchens reported that at least one member of their household was employed. This means that working families are using emergency food programs at a shockingly high rate. These working poor families simply do not earn enough to cover the cost of food and other essentials for their families. Many cannot qualify for food stamps or other assistance, either because their incomes are too high, or they do not meet program age guidelines. These people are forced to rely on emergency food as the only source of assistance available to them.

The sheer volume of people requesting emergency food is of great concern. The fact that they are in need of emergency assistance means that they are new to the system, cannot qualify for non-emergency food programs, or have not applied. Besides age and income restrictions that make it impossible for some to apply for non-emergency programs, there is another prevalent issue. Many cannot apply because they lack a home address, which is required. In fact, 15% of local people utilizing emergency food are homeless.

Not enough to live on, but too much to be eligible for help. The economics of hunger are tricky; it’s difficult to figure out how much help a family will need, especially when you consider that everyone’s situation is different. The national poverty level for a family of four is $22,050 per year.* However, as you can see in the Basic Needs Budget chart on page five, a family of four needs much more than $22,050 to live on. The federal government recognizes this as well. For example, a family of four must earn $28,668 or less per year to qualify for food stamps—a federal program. Even though these families are not living in poverty according to the federal government—they earn $6,618 more than a family living at the poverty level—the government recognizes that they cannot cover their basic needs. Even a family of four earning twice that of the federal poverty level might have a hard time covering all of its expenses without some kind of assistance.

Another reason for the unusually high number of people asking for emergency assistance is the unemployment rate—reported at 9.7% nationally for January 2010. These people are new to the system. Meaning that this is the first time they have experienced unemployment and have no idea how or where to ask for assistance. Many will use emergency food assistance to fill the gap, but will never apply for non-emergency food assistance programs.

More than one-quarter of those surveyed report that they have a least one household member in poor health. Additionally, 42% report that they have had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care. This is a strong indicator that poor health and lack of access to affordable health care can be major contributors to hunger.

All of these factors create a greater burden for charities that provide food assistance. Across the nation and locally as well, many have had to close their doors, unable to keep up with the increasing demand. It has left many of the surviving organizations relying on assistance from the food bank more than ever before.

According to the local shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries surveyed, the Community Food Bank is their single most important source of food. Local pantries surveyed show the food bank is providing an astounding 76% of the food they give to their clients. Shelters and soup kitchens use the food bank less, relying on us for 36% and 43% respectively. Other sources of food for these organizations include government, religious organizations, and purchased food.

Fortunately the supporters of the Community Food Bank have remained extremely generous, allowing us to increase services. We have been able to meet the needs of not only our individual clients, but also of the pantries, shelters and soup kitchens that count on us to provide food for their clients. Despite the bleak statistics, your gifts help us provide enough food for 48,000 meals every day. These gifts help us ensure that people in our community don’t go to bed hungry.

* $22,050 is the poverty level for 2009, the 2010 level has not come into effect yet.