The US Department of Ag's figures in May broke a record: 34.4 million people used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of aid to low-income people. Now one out of every nine Americans qualifies for "food stamps." That's an increase of over 2 percent from the previous month. And it's a staggering increase of 6 million new qualifiers over the past year.
Our central city neighborhood runs a small food pantry that provides a food supplement to anyone who lives nearby. Once every 60 days a household can receive a box of food, whether or not they receive food stamps. One simply shows a photo ID to receive the free supplement of food. I volunteer at the pantry six hours a week; I see the face of hunger close to home.
From my "ringside seat" on the need in the heart of this nation, I know that the USDA figures are right. But they don't go far enough. They don't reveal the human degradation of being down so far that you must ask for food.
When I started working here a few years ago, I suspected that I'd be scammed or taken advantage of by people who were "working the system." There's some of that from time to time, but I am far more often impressed by the opposite phenomenon. Viewing the records as I check people in, I might comment to them: "We haven't seen you here since last year." And they respond: "I try not to come here unless I'm really in need." or "I don't like to come here too often. But I got laid off..."
Our numbers more than tripled last month, compared to last year. In August 2008 we served 23 households; August 2009 we served 81. We don't have a sponsoring organization, relying on free-will donations to provide funding for food that we can purchase for less than $.20 a pound at the River Bend Food Bank. Everyone who works at the pantry is a volunteer, as are the few women who head it up. We're just people helping other people.
Our patrons often share their stories with us, explaining their family's situation. We try to listen as best we can. When it's possible, we stretch the rules to provide for exceptional needs. Occasionally we encounter people who live in a tent or a car. We help families with kids, lots of single parents, the elderly and people who are challenged--mentally and physically. Sometimes I choke back tears. Sometimes I let them show.
Watching the news and volunteering in our neighborhood, I know that all is not well in our nation. You can read statistics. Or you can observe the reality at a local food pantry. I bet you'll benefit more from the latter. I know I do.