Seeing the Invisible

In a growing state, a growing hunger

It’s important to sit down before reading about hunger in North Carolina. The federal government uses the odd term, “food insecurity,” to measure hunger. It refers to “limited availability of adequate safe food” and the “uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods.” For non-bureaucrats, it means during the past 12 months there have been significant periods in which your family couldn’t get enough to eat. In the richest nation on earth, 50 million of us fall under that unhappy designation. Seventeen million kids.

In North Carolina, food insecurity is rapidly on the rise. In 2007, 12.6 percent of us were classified as hungry. Last year, it was 19.6 percent, or 1.9 million. Twenty-eight percent of our children, over 622,000, meet the federal standard. We have the tenth highest food insecurity rate in the United States. Feeding America has reported that, for children under 5, we’re No. 2, trailing only Louisiana.

The massive 2012 Gallup/Food Research and Action Center study, “Food Hardship in America,” also identified the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan statistical area as having the second highest hunger rate in the entire nation. Asheville ranked ninth. The first congressional district, in eastern North Carolina, was 22nd (of 436) most food insecure. In 2007, about 900,000 Tar Heels participated in the federal food stamp program. Last year, it was 1.7 million – a 90 percent increase. We’re approaching the gold standard in American hunger.

We are now finishing up a legislative session in which North Carolina’s competitive status was debated and fretted over at every turn. It’s perhaps surprising, given that, we didn’t hear a word about Greensboro being the country’s second hungriest city, or Asheville the ninth. Or, even more stunning, that we have more hungry babies than almost anyone. But, of course, this is a silence we’ve grown accustomed to.

As Clyde Fitzgerald, director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest N.C. puts it: “Our leaders have decided not to talk about hunger or poverty. I don’t know why.” They did, though, manage to cut the appropriation for North Carolina food banks almost in half last year. It was deemed necessary in order to fund a tax cut for wealthy businesses.

Not everyone in North Carolina, though, ignores hunger. Many press, often with astonishing commitment, to roll the massive boulder up steep canyon walls.

Food banks trying to keep up

The Food Bank of Central & Eastern N.C., established in 1980, serves 34 counties, through a series of warehouses and about 800 (mostly religious) partner agencies, across the Triangle and eastern North Carolina. Almost 600,000 Tar Heels are food insecure in its service area; a million are at or near poverty. Demand for its food assistance has more than doubled in the last four years. In 1992, it distributed about five million pounds of food. Last year, it was 50 million.

And they know what they’re doing. A couple of months ago the Food Bank of CENC received the Feeding America Networks’ top award for excellence – surpassing the nation’s other 202 food banks. Still, Peter Werbicki, its CEO explains: “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and I lose sleep worrying about whether we’ll be able to keep up the overstretched level of service we do today.” He’d like to “be more visionary,” but “we’ve been in disaster mode for years.”

Even at present levels, my colleague Dr. Maureen Berner reports, “the need for food assistance is vastly unmet, the system lacks the capacity to meet current and future demands.” Werbicki puts it this way: “We distributed 50 million pounds of food last year in 34 counties. We could have sent it all to Wake County and still not met the need even there.”

Clyde Fitzgerald heads the Second Harvest food bank in northwest Carolina. Its writ includes, challengingly, Greensboro, where 23 percent of adults don’t have enough to eat; and Winston-Salem, described in a 2011 report as the worst city in America for childhood food hardship. They see, Fitzgerald reports, “thousands of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if their next meal is coming at all.”

“We’re still in the worst unemployment crisis in 80 years,” he reminds. Through “no real fault of their own, the landscape has shifted for so many.” Jobs are no longer there and, for those in manufacturing, they aren’t coming back. High “tech recruiting won’t help them,” Fitzgerald says, they need basic, “living wage work.”

The summer before last, Second Harvest, which serves 300,000 poor residents in 18 counties, ran out of food. We “sent our trucks out and, given the huge increases in demand, there wasn’t enough to stock them.”

Surprising clients

Those who use North Carolina food banks may surprise you. As Earline Middleton of the Food Bank of CENC explains, “they aren’t who you think not the person on the side of the road, but your neighbor.” They’re usually employed. They’re often ashamed. They’re people who “used to have good jobs, who volunteered at the pantry,” she says. Now “they’re working at Walmart and need help.”

And their stories crush, Middleton says. She tells of parents who don’t eat, so their kids can. Or who decide, that day, which kid will. Of children who complain, “it’s a bad day for me, not my day to eat.” Of elderly folks seeking food for their neighbors even though they, themselves, “haven’t had any meat in a year.” Of those choosing between food and electricity or food and rent. Stories hard to square with our immense national wealth.

We are blessed, no doubt, with saints. People like those of Raleigh’s Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, started by Jill Staton Bullard, from her back porch, now incorporating over 4,000 volunteers. Inventing new ways to reach “beyond the No. 10 can.” Developing a remarkable network of “person helping person helping person” – with fresh food and sustainable urban agriculture. But even the optimistic Bullard thinks, “if we don’t do something, we’re on a fast train heading into a dark tunnel.”

That dark tunnel now includes sharply restricted unemployment benefits, higher taxes for poor people, diminished low-income health care, and, apparently, massive upcoming cuts in the federal food stamp program.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law

and director of the school’s Center

on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.