The Tennessean, June 23, 2008: Hungry families rely on help

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A Gallatin summer camp asks a simple question on its opening-day survey: “Did you eat before you came to camp?”

This year, almost half the kids answered no.

“For some children, if they didn’t come here, they wouldn’t eat lunch,” said P.J. Davis, executive director of Gallatin Shalom Zone, a nonprofit that co-runs the free summer camp. “Those families aren’t worried about filling up the $50 tank of gas like the rest of Middle America. They’re worried about where the food comes from.”

For Tennesseans at the bottom of the economic ladder, rising costs mean going to bed hungry and waking up wondering where their next meal is coming from. Food prices on average are up about 5 percent year-over-year, the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show. A gallon of milk that was $3.06 two years ago is $3.76 today.

With a month left in its fiscal year, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee has served 18 percent more people with emergency food than in 2006-07. The number of Tennesseans receiving food stamps has risen about 7 percent this year, and their benefits haven’t kept pace with food prices.

Poverty experts say families are increasingly turning to summer camps, food pantries and emergency food aid to get by.

“The demand for emergency food goes up in the summer months because students were receiving breakfast and lunch at school and, all of a sudden, the family doesn’t have additional resources to feed the kids,” said Crystal FitzSimons with the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

Among those hit the hardest are families like Misty Baxter and her son, William. They live in the Clearview Heights neighborhood of Gallatin, just a block away from the Shalom Zone camp, where William is a leadership counselor.

William, a straight-A student at Gallatin High, and his mother walk 2½ miles one way to a grocery store. They only shop in the dollar aisle or peruse what’s on sale.

William’s father died a decade ago and his mother lost her job last fall. She hasn’t been able to find another, mainly because she doesn’t have a car.

Baxter, 40, said she and her son live on $598 a month: $288 in food stamps and the rest from Social Security. They live in Baxter’s grandfather’s house and contribute $200 a month toward the electricity bill and rent.

William, who’s soft-spoken and a favorite among the camp kids, said life’s been tough.

“It’s hard when you come home and there’s nothing to eat or drink and all you can drink is water,” he said. “You have to wait for somebody to feed you. I feel low, like I’m poor.”

Misty Baxter said the end of each month is when she gets creative and tries to stretch every can of beans, every hot dog, every pack of chicken. On good days, she splurges on sweet potatoes. On bad days, she asks her mother or a friend for help.

Metro’s summer food

Metro Action Commission will serve more than 200,000 free meals to youths this summer through its summer food service program benefiting camps, community centers and academic summer programs.

In the first two weeks of this month, the program served 35 percent more lunches this year than in the first two weeks of June 2007.

Jaynee Day, Second Harvest president and CEO, said the nonprofit also has seen an increase in demand at summer feeding programs. Second Harvest supplies meals to 26 summer programs in Davidson County alone. It’s up to 1,300 students a day this year from 950 last year.

The Stamp Out Hunger food drive in Davidson County, which benefited Second Harvest, brought in 100,000 pounds of food this year, 10,000 less than last year. Donors also haven’t been giving as much through Kroger. And some donations haven’t been usable, Day said.

“Sometimes people will just clean out their cupboard and that’s not helpful,” she said.

Food banks are in need of five essential items: canned meat products, such as tuna or chili; canned fruits and veggies; soup; peanut butter; and rice and beans.

Those items, along with cereal and macaroni and cheese, also make their way into emergency food boxes distributed to agencies like the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry.

Juanita McCoy, interim director, said demand for emergency food is up from last year. On Thursday alone, the group distributed boxes to 28 families.

“We’ve already given out 250 boxes of food, and it’s only the middle of the month,” she said.

Some Tennesseans are opting for more than a summer fix they’re opting for the federal food stamp program. Since 2001, the number of Tennesseans receiving food stamps has nearly doubled. In May 2001, 526,432 received them. By May 2008, the latest statistic available, that number had swelled to 910,872 Tennesseans.

“People who used to say, ‘I can get by without this charity’ are now coming in,” said Michelle Mowery Johnson, director of communications at the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

The average family receives about $225 a month in food stamps, with individuals getting $109. The most a family can receive is $542.

Those figures will go up, once funds from the new federal farm bill kick in. But that won’t happen until the fall, said Sophie Milam, a policy analyst for the anti-hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World.

Once the new regulations are in place, families will also face fewer restrictions. Currently, families are allowed to deduct less than $200 a month for child-care expenses while applying for aid. That cap has been removed. The minimum food stamp grant, which has stood at $10 a month for decades, will now be raised to $14 a month.

The farm bill also adds more funds for emergency food aid. Food banks have been receiving about

$140 million for emergency aid for the past five years, Milam said.

“During that time food prices have gone up by 20 percent,” she said.

The new farm bill raised emergency food aid to $250 million a year. That’s good news for agencies such as Second Harvest, which delivers food to 46 counties and needs additional funds to offset increased costs.

“Our fuel bill in April was $7,500,” Day said. “In May, it was $18,000. And we are hearing from people who can’t pick up their emergency food boxes because they can’t afford the gas.”

Middle-class impact

But the tough economic times haven’t hit only those who tiptoe the poverty line. A Nashville teacher, Taomi Ray, 30, is a prime example. Ray, who is divorced with two children and a master’s degree, earns $46,000 a year. People tell her she has a comfortable life and shouldn’t complain, she said. Her children don’t qualify for the free and reduced price meals at school, she said, because she earns too much.

“I wear nice suits to work and am professional, but nobody knows how I struggle to put food on the table,” Ray said, her eyes welling up.

“Those months that the bills are lower, I stock up on five or six loaves of bread and gallons of milk and freeze them. It almost brings me to my knees to ask a friend for $6 to put gas into my car. I know how stuff can happen to you that makes you not want to get out of bed.”

Ray said she brings home $1,100 every two weeks. The rent alone, she said, is $840. Add taxes, insurance, gas, electric bill and student loans, and sometimes there’s only $40 left.

Her two children are enrolled in a summer camp at the Shelby Community Center in East Nashville.

“It’s day by day. I try to manage it cent by cent, literally. It makes me feel terrible and I just have to breathe and really figure it out.”

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