Friday, October 22, 2010

Does our society tolerate hunger? Interview with Dr. Maureen Berner

Do you know how many food pantries provide free groceries to hungry people in your area? We asked a few people how many they would guess served the 34 counties of Central and Eastern North Carolina (about 1/3 of the state). We got answers of 10, 25, 100, and 102. What do you think?

The real number is close to 500 food pantries. Nationally, according to Feeding America, the number is 33,500 pantries.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to not need food assistance are often quite unaware of this large network of food banks and pantries working every day to help feed the over 49 million Americans who live in food insecure households (data from 2008).

How is the network of food pantries doing, and who are the clients?

For a better understanding, we interviewed Dr. Maureen Berner, Associate Professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.  Dr. Berner and co-researchers, including Dr. Sharon Paynter, Assistant Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University, have studied those very questions.

We learned that most food pantries and feeding programs in this country were founded in the 1980’s, when welfare reform and other social trends led to more and more hungry Americans.  Today, demand is continuing to rise. According to Berner, at one food bank in North Carolina, demand increased 76% in 2009; at others the increase was 30% to 70%. But supply only increased 20%.

Food pantries are most often affiliated with churches and staffed by incredibly dedicated, hard working, and caring volunteers. But Dr. Berner’s research points to several factors suggesting that pantries may not be well-positioned to meet the growing need. For example:  
  • Most pantries have at most 1 paid or professional staff; 68% are run entirely by volunteers.
  • The boards of directors and volunteers (often older retirees) may not have the skills, training, or time to grow the pantry to meet increasing demand.
  • Donations of food and dollars tend to be unstable and recently have declined.
  • Pantries often occupy very small locations with little room to grow.
  • Pantries typically focus on shelf-stable foods, such as canned goods and packaged cereal. Most have limited facilities to handle fresh produce, bakery items, frozen foods, eggs, meat, milk products, and prepared foods – items that would help clients create a healthier, balanced diet.
  • Pantries sometimes offer other services, such as free clothes and referrals, but they may not see their mission as helping people reduce their food insecurity long-term with services such as job and housing assistance.
Who are the clients at food pantries?  Not perhaps entirely those you’d expect. Many are employed and many receive some form of federal food assistance.  In one study at a large food pantry in Iowa in 2004-2006, Berner reported that 26% of the clients were employed, and 39% of those coming to the pantry regularly also received aid from government programs such as food stamps and social security. Nationwide in 2009, Feeding America reported that 36% percent of the households served by their network had at least one person working, and 41% percent were receiving SNAP benefits, an increase of 64 percent over 2006.

Wouldn’t employment and federal benefits keep their recipients food secure?  Clearly not.

A person working full-time at a minimum wage job ($7.25/hour) grosses about $15,000 a year, below the poverty line for all but households of 1 or 2.
The federal poverty level is way too low for most Americans to meet their basic needs for housing, utilities, food, and other expenses. The government recognizes this, too, so for programs like WIC and School Lunch, clients may qualify if their income is below 185% of the federal poverty level. Other programs use levels such as 175% or 200% of the federal poverty line.

We’ve also heard many stories of the punishing effect of getting a job – other benefits, such as SNAP, are reduced so much that the person’s situation actually becomes worse.

Pantries are doing what they can to meet the need for food for hungry Americans. But there is an interesting disconnect. Many pantries are set up to provide short-term help for people experiencing temporary emergencies. But Berner’s research shows that most clients at food pantries have a years-long relationship with the pantry as part of meeting their ongoing, systemic need for food.

As Berner writes, “If we wish to maintain the government responsibility to alleviate hunger in our country, benefits for eligible citizens must be increased or food assistance nonprofits need more government support. Otherwise we should face the fact that as an undeclared public policy, our society tolerates hunger.”

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Dr. Berner.
    You guys are collecting fantastic documentation.
    But the Republicans are going to win next Tuesday and then what? Sorry to be a negative voice, but when will the nation face the fact that we tolerate hunger?

    Be well and safe as you journey.