Millions of working Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
And while hunger always has existed here, the face of hunger in America today looks nothing like it did during the Depression era.
It’s a harsh reality and a growing trend in communities all across the country, including the Clear Lake area and other suburban areas thought to be affluent.
“This is a unique area,” said Shay Robertson, a registered dietitian with the University of Texas Medical Branch. “There are pockets of wealth and then you turn the corner and you wonder when the last time was someone had a decent meal.”
The increase can be partially attributed to booming growth in the region; with more people living in, more people are in need, area food bank officials said.
But that’s not all of it.
Today in the United States more than half of hungry households are white, and two-thirds of those with children have at least one adult employed full-time.
People who have never had to seek help before are having to now, and they often don’t know where to turn, said Jennifer Frederic, outreach program specialist with the Galveston County Food Bank.
“There’s no way around the increasing prices and decreasing revenue,” Frederic said.
Even people in affluent communities are having a hard time affording food, and the problem can hard to see, officials said.
“You can by designer clothes at thrift stores; there are payment plans for electronics; but there’s no payment plan for food,” Frederic said. “There’s no way to budget for food and then pay it off.”
Changing the face of hunger
In 2006, the federal government replaced “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe any household where sometime during the previous year people didn’t have enough food to eat.
In Galveston County, 53,600 people are regularly missing meals, according to the Galveston County Food Bank.
But the Galveston County Food Bank is only feeding 12,000 of those people, officials said.
The Houston Food Bank each year distributes more than 77.5 million meals to people struggling with hunger.
In the Houston Food Bank’s service area, one in six people struggle with hunger, one in four of those is a child, according to the organization’s website.
The Clear Lake area, which includes Webster, Clear Lake City, Seabrook and Nassau Bay, falls into the service area of both of these food banks, officials said.
In 2014, 61 percent of those households in need across the county participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs — Supplemental Nutrition Assitance Program (SNAP), The National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
The number of privately run food programs such has food pantries and soup kitchens has also increased. In 1980, there were only a few hundred. Now, there are more than 50,000, according to Feeding America.
Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks, which today is feeding 1 million more Americans each week than it did in 2010 — 54 percent of whom live households with at least one working adult.
‘One step away’
“We are all one step away from being on the other side,” said Amy Killgore, president of League City Rotary Club. “We don’t know anyone’s circumstances.”
This year, the League City Rotary Club started a mobile food distribution truck, which provides fresh food to those in need.
And because so many people are living paycheck to paycheck, it takes only one instance to put a person, or an entire family, in need.
“It could be an instance where someone was in a marriage, they get divorced, and then that mother doesn’t have her husband’s income anymore to help support her and her children,” Friederic said.
Or it could be something as simple as car repairs or an unexpected medical expense, said Suzy Domingo, executive director with Interfaith Caring Ministries.
“Then they have to choose whether they take care of that problem or buy food for their family,” Domingo said.
Of the 46.5 million Americans in need each year, 66 percent have had to choose between food and medical care and 58 percent of those households have someone with high blood pressure and 33 percent with diabetes, according to Feeding America statistics.
Helping those in need
Interfaith Caring Ministries helps serve those families in the Clear Lake area who need help filing the gap when unexpected expenses come up, she said.
The group runs a pantry that supplies food and other household items to qualifying families. These groceries include food staples such as rice, beans, canned goods, macaroni, tuna and frozen meat and produce when available.
Besides having access to food regularly, it’s also essential for children’s development to have access to fresh food, Robertson said.
“Inadequate diet can affect critical development stages,” Robertson said.
Which is why area school districts work to provide free and reduced lunches to students who are unable to afford the full price of a school meal.
Students who qualify can receive both breakfast and lunch during the school year.
A lot of the working poor don’t have the time or know how to eat well on little. Healthy food can be hard to find in food deserts, which is a community with few or no full-service grocery stores — and often, families are on the run more than they were years ago.
“There’s been a significant decrease in the number of families coming to the table to eat,” Robertson said. “It’s much easier to eat in a bag in the car.”
Educating, an ongoing process
Through the free and reduced meal programs at schools, students learn to make healthy choices when picking meals.
Programs such as Garden Kids of Kemah also shows students the process of seed to plate where they are able to experience growing and tending to their own food, plus preparing simple, healthy meals of their own, said Sheila Thorne, project lead for Garden Kids.
“We teach them about being sustainable where you don’t throw everything out,” Thorne said.
But that need doesn’t end when classes let out. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers summer meal programs to ensure no child is left hungry.
Each summer, local food banks work to feed those children who are usually supplemented by school district’s free and reduced lunches. But because there is no regular transportation for many children, the designated lunch sites are only able to access about 12 percent of the population regularly, Frederic said.
And while it seems like a battle that can’t be won, area food bank officials said it’s important to continue education whenever possible.
“There’s no denying it,” Frederic said. “Hunger issues are here, they exist. People are in need all around you.”