News: Fast Learners

The hungry are right here, and not always by choice

Feb 26, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Todd Forman and students fasted in order to experience hunger.

When the American dream is reduced to merely making it paycheck to paycheck, the picture of hunger is not a kid living in a shack in a Third World country. He's the kid next door.

"Last year's food bank donors are now this year's food bank clients," says Lisa Hamler-Podolski, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks. "This is a new phenomenon for us."

Lining up at soup kitchens — something not often seen since the Great Depression — is happening again, she says.

The 12 food banks that serve Ohio's 88 counties are finding it increasingly harder to meet the needs of member charities, according to Hamler-Podolski.

"They're saying they can't even keep their warehouses stocked," she says.

Two-thirds of the food banks' 3,000 member charities are faith-based. Hamler-Podolski scoffs when she hears talk of mobilizing the "compassionate armies," because they've already been mobilized for years. The "armies" are now strapped and in need of reinforcements that don't seem to be coming anytime soon.

"Forty-four percent report that they've had to ration food in the past 12 months or turn people away," she says.

Fined for being hungry
Students at Ursuline Academy in Blue Ash went hungry last weekend — not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

They participated in a 30-hour "famine," fasting and listening to presentations by such groups as the Coalition for a Humane Economy (CHE), Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center and the Cooperative for Education. The groups were the beneficiaries of student fund raising.

"The goal is to talk about global economic issues and how it affects lives locally," says Susan Knight, campaign coordinator for CHE.

CHE took its message to students through a game that helps explain globalization, showing how common people are affected by the worldwide economy.

In many countries, workers who once produced their own food have been forced to switch to cash crops, according to Knight.

"At one point people were very poor but they were eating," she says.

When the market for cash crops bottoms out, farmers have no choice but to sell their land to corporations and move to cities in search of work. The jobs usually pay wages that don't allow workers to meet their basic needs, according to Knight. Corporations go for the cheapest labor, forcing workers in nations around the world to compete against each other for jobs offering little pay.

"It becomes a race to the bottom," Knight says.

Todd Forman, community service coordinator for Ursuline Academy, has been participating in "famines" for eight years.

"We started off the first year with probably 40 students participating," he says.

This year more than 100 Ursuline students and about 60 students from other local schools went without food for 30 hours.

"Fasting has a long history of being a way of showing your support for something or a way to show your rebellion against something," Forman says.

In going hungry by choice, students had a chance to reflect on why so many go hungry without a choice.

"We don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from," says Ursuline student Katie Olinger. "We're not hit with it obviously, because if they don't have enough money to buy food, they're not going to be going to the same places we are."

Forman encourages speakers to talk about their community service, giving students role models.

"I think they have a real desire to learn, to get out of their bubble that a lot of these kids live in in the suburbs," he says. "For many of the kids, it's sort of an inroad to service. Hopefully this will be a starting point for them."

High school was a starting point in social service for Lea Minniti, a recent graduate of Xavier University. As a student at Seton High School, she helped organize a community service club. By the second year, more than 200 students were involved in projects around Cincinnati.

Minniti now works with Su Casa Hispanic Ministry as part of the Public Allies program. In a gathering of students preparing for the "famine," she told her most recent encounter with despair. A young woman from Mexico came to this country to earn money to feed her family. She was caught trying to get a job with fake identification papers. Her fine was more than $500, an enormous sum for a person who has just left dire poverty. She spent two nights in jail; it cost her friends $1,623 to bail her out. She has to serve 200 service hours as part of her sentence.

"The reason why people come here is hunger," Minniti says.

'The war on the poor'
Working parents with young children are the fastest-growing group at emergency food programs, according to Hunger Free America, an initiative to raise awareness about childhood hunger in the United States. The group says there are 393,000 "food insecure" households in Ohio.

But as the need for emergency pantries and food banks is growing, the state is about to cut funding. Second Harvest received $4.5 million per year in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), according to Jon Allen, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The Taft administration's proposed budget suggests dropping earmarks for TANF funding, including $4.5 million per year for pantries, Allen says.

The $4.5 million funding amounts to 17 percent of the food bank's budget, according to Hamler-Podolski. In other words, another 17 of every 100 people in need will have to be turned away. Hamler-Podolski tells legislators to imagine a line of 100 people — 42 are kids, 10 are frail senior citizens and the rest are poor adults.

"What I say to legislators is, 'You tell me which 17 people,' " she says. "Ninety-six percent of everybody we feed statewide have incomes at or below the federal poverty level."

State officials are considering other funding in the amount of $2.5 million per year to fund food pantries and leveraging those funds with federal dollars, Allen says.

Hamler-Podolski gives examples of the people she's tried to help: a 50-year-old woman who lost her job and has exhausted her unemployment benefits; a senior citizen on a budget of $425 a month, with $150 going to prescription drugs; and a single parent with two kids facing the possibility of losing her child care subsidy.

"I call this the war on the poor," Hamler-Podolski says. "It's new poor. The job losses continue. More and more people every day are exhausting their unemployment benefits with absolutely no hope of securing another job. It's going on everywhere."

In a country of great prosperity, hunger is often coupled with a sense of defeat, according to Olinger.

"Nobody wants to have to say, 'I can't feed my children,' " she says.

In fact, that's what makes the new poor hard to serve. Often they end up in social service organizations only after they max out their credit cards and take second mortgages to try to make ends meet, according to Hamler-Podolski. They show up looking for help, shocked that there's not much to keep them from hitting bottom.

"I remind people that we reformed 'welfare as we know it' and you're right — there isn't much of a safety net left," she says. ©