I know Janice personally, we sat on the same community nonprofit board. I heard her call my name from across our parking lot. “Ellen, Ellen, do you have a minute?”
“Of course, let’s go up to my office.”
“I want you to know how much I appreciate and depend upon Covenant House’s Food Pantry. I never thought I would be going to a food pantry. I was a donor two years ago. Now I often use your food pantry two times a month, usually just two or three days before I get paid. I just wanted you to know it makes a difference and I don’t know what I would do without it. ”
Janice is not alone. The majority of individuals visiting the Covenant House food pantry work and have felt themselves slipping from the ranks of the middle class. Contrary to the stereotypical images of haggard and wasted unemployed scavenging for food, the majority of visitors to the food pantry are white, have children and at least one working adult in the household.
Almost 10 years ago the federal government replaced the term “hungry” with “food insecure” to reflect the reality in families throughout America. Food insecure describes any household that did not have enough food to eat during the last year.
In 2010, the Covenant House Food Pantry provided food for 5,592 people from Charleston and surrounding communities. The first six months of this year 6,105 people have counted upon the Covenant House pantry to put food on the family table. The Covenant House food pantry does not intend to supply 100 percent of household food; it is set up to be an emergency supplement to the family table. In 2010, Covenant House did not budget for food; we relied upon donations from congregations of churches, synagogues, temples, schools, businesses, the Mountaineer Food Bank, the Facing Hunger Food Bank and individuals. Today we continue to rely upon the generosity of these same donors. At the same time, we now dedicate a sizable budget to purchasing food every week.
Why are we experiencing such an exponential increase? First, the average SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits fell by about 7 percent due to last November’s expiration of the temporary benefit increase in the 2009 Recovery Act. This reduction has had a devastating impact on low-income households’ ability to afford adequate food — and on local economies. Local soup kitchens like Manna Meal, Covenant House food pantry and others are filling in the gap.
Most SNAP recipients already had difficulty affording food, and the lost benefits equal about 10 meals a month for an average West Virginia SNAP household. Because SNAP households spend 97 percent of their benefits by the end of the month, the reduction will likely cause more households to run out of money for food.
Secondly, the middle class has seen a reduction in real wages while food, energy, transportation and housing costs continue to increase. Even though there are frequently one or two working people in a household, minimum wage does not add up to a living wage.
Thirdly, and this is certainly true of downtown Charleston’s East End — food deserts make it difficult for people living in poverty to buy nutritious and reasonably priced food. A food desert exists when access to a supermarket is more than one-half mile away.
Finally, safe, affordable, clean, housing for those earning less than a living wage is hard to find. Many people are paying in excess of 50 percent of household income for housing; this leaves little for food.
It is the perfect storm. Excessive housing costs, less than a living wage and barriers to access to reasonably priced food are driving once middle-class families into poverty and food insecurity. In the meantime, food assistance is one strategy for local communities to lift up hard working families.
Ellen Allen is the executive director of Covenant House.