MSNBC, December 19, 2007: Poverty In Western Pennsylvania

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We talk a lot about the war, soaring gas prices, lagging wages and job growth, but what about poverty and hunger?

As WTAE Channel 4 continues our series on poverty, we find the impact much closer than most think, especially hunger.

When families can’t get food because they don’t have money or other resources, the federal government calls it “food insecurity.”

The problem has climbed steadily since 1999. Pennsylvania is among the hardest-hit states with nearly 620,000 people now in deep poverty and hunger.

Data shows not all Americans get plenty of food. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, hunger is due to poverty, which affects one out of every nine households. Right now, 36 million Americans are living in poverty and the number is growing

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows deep or severe poverty grew by 26 percent between 2000 and 2005. A McClatchy newspaper analysis of 2005 census figures found more than 16 million Americans living in deep or severe poverty. The majority are women and children.

In Allegheny County, more than 41,000 children under the age of 18 live in poverty, with 18,000 of them in Pittsburgh.

The numbers are sobering. In 2003, Pennsylvania ranked 28th in the nation for poor children. A recent survey shows it’s among the Top 10 hardest-hit states with the most people in severe poverty.

In Pittsburgh, every fourth person standing in a soup kitchen line is a child, but the working poor are hit just as hard.

Janetta Rosensteel is divorced, making a little more than $20,000 a year. Her budget is a teetering tightrope. She’s at Children’s Hospital because one of her three children, 10-year-old Bryan, is overweight.

“Our wages don’t go up, and the price of everything else is going up, and it’s getting difficult,” said Rosensteel.

Bryan weighs 157 pounds, which is too much for his age. His problem is the food he eats.

“Most of the time, McDonalds and my mother’s cooking,” he said.

Children like Bryan depend on the school lunch program for one-third to one-half of their daily nutrition.

“Had a hard time with him eating vegetables,” said Rosensteel. “He didn’t want to eat them, but he’s eating a lot more of them now.”

Dr. Goutham Rao, of Pediatric Weight Management, said childhood obesity could be a sign of hunger. Two-thirds of his patients are poor. With grocery stores rare in poor neighborhoods, many there eat fast food for its convenience, taste, and because it is filling.

“It tends to be heavily processed,” said Rao. “It tends to be energy dense, and that puts them at risk of obesity and all its consequences like high blood pressure and diabetes in the long run.”

Hungry children suffer two to four times as many health problems as those who are not hungry. Hunger doesn’t just make the stomach growl though. It also stunts growth, cripples thinking and learning, saps energy and causes anxiety, low self-esteem and hostility

For the working poor, using food coupons is like finding money and helps put healthy food on the table.

“You have in-store specials or managers specials, especially with the meats,” said UPMC Dietician Mark Dinga. “It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that they have to move it along. So, I think people should take advantage of that.”

With some patience, training and planning, it’s possible to eat better, even on a tight budget.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is on the front lines in the fight against hunger, reaching 120,000 people every year by distributing to food pantries.

But it is finding more on its plate these days with nearly 24,000 new families that have been added to its list since 2006.

“If you can imagine Heinz Field filled up two times and each of those times, half of the stadium is filled with children and seniors over the age of 60 in need of food assistance and the other half a growing number of people, people who are working, and they are trying very hard to meet their needs, but they need our help,” said Joyce Rothermel of the Food Bank.

And giving that help is getting tougher. About $1.5 million in state and federal monies have been lost recently.

“We help babies survive,” said Carol Janesko of the Public Health Nutrition Administration. “We help mom’s feed their children.”

The county’s WIC program is also on the front lines.

WIC is a health and supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children who meet certain income, medical and nutritional prerequisites.

“We have children that are failure to thrive, children that are in foster care, children that are just not getting enough food,” said Janesko. “We have moms that are breastfeeding, and we can help them with pumps.”

shaesayson Brown’s first child is due in two weeks. Once a daycare assistant, until her back gave out, her doctor referred her to WIC.

“Extra help for income with food, feeding the baby and myself,” she said. “Keeping healthy while I am still pregnant and feeding the family.”

Brown can buy milk, cheese, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, juice, cereal, peanut butter or dried beans at any store that participates in the WIC program.

It’s hard to imagine, but every 44 seconds a baby is born into poverty. Without good nutrition, they won’t make it. Currently 16,300 infants and children now benefit from WIC in Allegheny County. There is room for more. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need to be on welfare to join the WIC program. It’s family size that matters. If you need help and you want to know whether you qualify for WIC, you can call them at 412-350-5801 or visit

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