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Lingering joblessness taxes nation's food banks

Philabundance

Philabundance's Community Food Center, which serves 450 cupboards and pantries throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has seen a 26 percent spike in need this year and now serves food for about 65,000 people weekly.

The face of hunger in America is changing. It’s a little more ex-middle class, a little more desperate and there are a lot more mouths to feed, people who run the nation's food banks say.  

“We’re seeing a lot more families, many who are running out of money and benefits because of long-term unemployment,” said Bill Clark, executive director of food bank Philabundance. “Since 2007, the changing face of hunger has been influenced a lot by unemployment.” 

Clark doesn’t put much credence in the monthly fluctuations in employment data from the government. Every day he sees how the long-term jobless are struggling to meet basic needs.

The food bank, which serves 450 cupboards and pantries throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has seen a 26 percent spike in need this year and now serves food for about 65,000 people weekly. 

On Friday, the Labor Department will release employment data for November. In October, employers added 80,000 jobs, offering a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered employment market. 

Still, the labor market remains a big problem for the economic recovery; 14 million Americans are out of work. 

The millions of long-term jobless, a nagging trait of this anemic recovery, have been taxing the nation’s food banks that have seen a spike in usage and a decline in donations. 

“The emptying of food banks is another indicator of the depth of the recession and its long term impacts,” said Jerry McElroy, economics professor with Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., who has been watching the food bank crisis and blames a big part of it on long-term unemployment. “I was astounded looking at the food bank situation. It’s a national phenomenon across almost every state in the union.” 

As of October, there were nearly 6 million long-term unemployed, those jobless for 27 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and McElroy pointed to the growing number of individuals who are now food insecure as a by product of that. 

After declining in 2005 and remaining relatively stabile for several years, food insecurity among Americans rose in 2008 to 14.6 percent of households and has stayed at that level ever since, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rise in long-term unemployment beginning in 2008 has closely mirrored the increase of participation in the SNAP program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, according to Congress' Joint Economic Committee. 

“These people have used all their resources, exhausted their savings, and their family and friends are worn out because many of them are beginning to feel pinched,” McElroy said, referring to the long-term jobless. 

Indeed, food banks across the country are seeing large increases in the numbers of people looking for help. Last year food pantry usage nationally jumped 46 percent to 37 million people, according to hunger relief charity Feeding America. And the crowds haven’t let up. 

The Connecticut Food Bank, which serves 300,000 people annually and serves six of the state’s eight counties, saw usage jump 30 percent in 2008 and the increases never abated. “It’s this constancy that is so disturbing, and we’re not seeing an end in sight,” said Nancy Carrington, CEO and president of the food bank. 

And the food bank clientele is also changing, she said, from people who’ve been teetering on poverty in low-wage jobs, to professionals who were solidly middle class. “We have experienced many individuals for the first time -- people who never thought they’d need help," she said.

Carrington recalled one particular family from a suburban town in greater New Haven who came looking for assistance at a food pantry this past summer. The husband had a good-paying job in the financial sector but lost his job after companywide cutbacks. 

“His wife worked for the state but with two daughters in college and a son in high school it didn’t take long before they spent down their savings,” she said. “So he found himself in position he never dreamt he’d be in and went to a pantry in a neighboring town because he was embarrassed of the situation and was afraid someone would know him if he went close to home.” 

Families like this, she added, are often not eligible for food stamps or other assistance because they may have a home or other assets. “Of the people who are food insecure in Connecticut, over half don’t qualify for federal assistance,” she said.

So many are turning to food pantries and cupboards, and that’s causing a strain on many food banks at a time when donations, especially from manufacturers and wholesalers, are on the decline and food prices are rising. 

“The food industry has become much more efficient in recent years, so they don’t have the excesses they used to or they’re selling it to secondary markets, like a dollar store,” she said. “Many items used to be donated to use, such as a discontinued line of flavored soup, or items with not so many days left on it to sell to consumers.” 

Individual donations have held steady, she added, but canned food drives typically only make up 1 to 2 percent of the food they distribute. 

Increasingly, Philabundance has to rely more heavily on purchasing food and not just on donations from companies, said Clark. “We’ve really begun in earnest in last two or three years of really having purchased food be a strategic part of our total food acquisition plan,” he noted. 

Clark said the food bank was going to do whatever it could to meet escalating demand, including opening up a cupboard for the first time instead of just being a distributor of food. “A lot of areas most in need don’t have preexisting distribution points,” he said, and that’s why they opened the Community Food Center in North Philadelphia. “Food banks across the country are trying to deal with this new reality,” he added. 

Mariann Sharp of Wallingford, Conn,, is facing her own new reality when it comes to pantry aid. 

Sharp, 57, lost her job as a computer assembler nearly two years ago and has been unable to find a job. She gets $388 a month in unemployment and recently lost her apartment and had to move in with a friend. Earlier this year, she made her first trip to a pantry and said the experience “killed me. In my entire life I never had to ask for anything.” 

In addition to being a client at Master’s Manna, a pantry in Wallingford, she’s also begun volunteering for the organization about 30 hours a week until she finds work. “At my age a lot of places don’t even want to talk to me, especially with me being out of work for so long,” she said about perspective employers. “But I’d be the best employee going.” 

Food pantries have sprung up on campuses from California to New Hampshire, as rising college costs, shrinking financial aid and a tight job market make students' budgets even tighter than normal. NBC's John Yang reports.