More Families Going Hungry In The U.S.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than a half a million households are "food insecure" and suffer from hunger. Host Michel Martin talks to Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, about what she's doing to combat the problem and tells her own personal story about once being a mother on welfare. Also joining the conversation is Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of North Texas Food Bank, who is seeing a rise in clients at the food bank.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, remember William Kunstler? He was the self-described radical lawyer, a central player in the turbulent '60s and beyond, famous for taking on the most unpopular cases and clients. Now two of his daughters have made a film about their famous father. The documentary is called "Disturbing the Universe," and we'll tell you more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, do you remember when you were told to eat everything on your plate because children in other countries were going hungry? Well, we have learned this week that there are many people in this country who don't have enough to eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is reporting that hunger in the U.S. is higher than at any time since the government began tracking it 14 years ago. Nearly 50 million people struggled to get enough nutritious food last year.

The number includes almost one in four children. The key factor, of course, is the recession. Workers are earning less money or are unemployed, and poverty continues to rise. Joining us to talk more about this are Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of North Texas Food Bank. She's in Chicago right now for a conference on hunger - and also U.S. Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin. She's been a long time advocate of programs that provide food to low-income families. Her own experience includes a time as a single mother when she received government assistance while earning a college degree. Thank you both, ladies, for joining us.

Representative GWEN MOORE (Democrat, Wisconsin): Great to be here.

Ms. JAN PRUITT (President and CEO, North Texas Food Bank): Thank you.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Moore, if I could start with you, you've seen the study. What's most striking to you about the numbers? Are you surprised by this?

Rep. MOORE: Oh, absolutely not surprised. And we've seen these numbers rise steadily. And, of course, they've risen more steeply with this recession, and I think its extremely important for us all to recognize that there is no safety net, especially for children.

MARTIN: I think that's the thing that is surprising to many people. I think many people assume that there's a safety net in the form of food stamps and in the form of a school lunch, and in some cases, the school breakfast programs. And then when all else fails, there's the sort of private volunteer efforts through food banks and all. We're going to hear more about that, obviously, from Jan. But why is it that whatever safety net is in place right now is not sufficient to keep people from going hungry?

Rep. MOORE: Well, I can tell you that it's onerous. It's hard to administer. You know, I live in Wisconsin. Of course, we're 43rd in the nation for providing school breakfasts. I just recently had signed into law a bill that expanded the ability to provide suppers to children in the school setting. We have all this means testing instead of just providing school lunch. You know, we require parents to send back forms, and if they don't, they don't get the lunches. There's stigma attached to receiving a school lunch, and we need to end some of the bureaucracy.

MARTIN: Jan, let's go to you. The report says that nationally, an average of 14.6 percent of households had difficulty providing food for family members. In 2006 through 2008, Texas ranked second for food insecurity, following only Mississippi. Can you just tell us a little bit more about what you're seeing with the agencies that you work with? What are they saying?

Ms. PRUITT: You know, similarly to Congresswoman Moore, I was not surprised by these numbers. Our agencies are telling us that they're seeing 36 percent more new faces coming to their door than they did this time last year. At the same time, the North Texas Food Bank's distribution is up. You know, we had planned for about a 16 percent increase, and we're on track to have a 33 percent increase this year.

MARTIN: Now you are saying - can I ask, are you seeing people who you have not seen before? You're seeing new faces, but are you seeing people from different parts of the community who you haven't seen, different neighborhoods, different demographic backgrounds that you hadn't seen before?

Ms. PRUITT: Absolutely. Food banks have concentrated on the working poor, because those are the families that have struggled to keep food on their table - people who work, but don't have enough money to feed their family. Now it's professionals, people that have been laid off. We've had people like an engineer, he lost his job. He had been making $100,000 a year, lost his home, lost his, you know, had used up his savings and was actually sitting down, filling out a food stamp application with one of our outreach workers. That's kind of the new face of hunger right now.

MARTIN: And you - could you pick up a little bit on the point that Congresswoman Moore made about the whole process of getting food stamps? Because I think the thing that we still want to get to is, why does -whatever safety net exists now, why isn't it sufficient to provide all these people? Is the process for getting food stamps very, very difficult, for example?

Ms. PRUITT: Well, I think the concept of a safety net is something that we all believe, you know, exists out there for us. And the reality is that safety net has some pretty big holes in it. One of them is the fact that you cannot get food stamps unless you are at a 130 percent of poverty or below. Then people that are really struggling because they cannot get any kind of government help or very limited government help are people at a 130 to, say, a 185 percent of poverty - approximately $40,000 for a family of four, which is difficult, especially in Dallas, Texas, to live on.

The process is difficult, and in Texas, the system is really struggling because of an attempt to privatize the food stamp system a couple of years ago, just all kinds of problems, and then the recession and the number of people coming into the offices. We had some waits a couple of months ago for approximately 60 days. That's from the time you give your application to the time you get an appointment, you're waiting 60, 90 days to get that appointment at a time when you're needing to feed your family today.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of North Texas Food Bank. We're talking a new report by the Department of Agriculture that says that the number of Americans lacking consistent access to adequate food soared last year. It's the highest level since the government began tracking what it calls food insecurity 14 years ago. Congressman, do you mind if I ask your personal story?

Rep. MOORE: Sure. I don't know how I did it, but I went to school without breakfast or lunch all through elementary school and junior high school. And finally, when I got to the 11th grade, I picked up the school lunch, walked to the cashier, declared I'm going to sit down and eat this and I'm going to come back and do it again tomorrow. There was a little rumble in the kitchen, and they left me alone. You know, I went through school during a time when they said that if I were receiving food assistance or welfare and my mom was receiving aid, then it would be a duplication of services for them to give me a free school lunch, and I just rebelled against that.

I just said, you know, I was an A student, and then I went on to become a single parent where I needed food stamps. And so I experienced hunger personally. And, you know, I'm determined as a legislator to do everything that I can. I mean, I've worked diligently in the state legislature and here in Congress on high-tech kind of legislation, like trying to provide suppers for kids after school, providing universal breakfast programs.

I also wanted to track in on a point that Jan made I thought was really important, and that is when she talked about middle class folk needing more assistance. When you stop and think about the Thrifty Food Plan, which is a bare minimum amount of money that you need - subsistence level for a family of four being a $117 per week - you realize that the cost of food has increased tremendously, and it is not tracked adequately with the amount of food support that we provide.

And I think that this is something that we need to address. So while we increase the numbers, while there's a diligent effort here in Congress to increase numbers of dollars that are available through our - the food and feeding programs, we need to really evaluate the income levels at which people are eligible for these programs.

MARTIN: Well, some of the things, congresswoman, just briefly if we can, because we're almost out of time. Some of the things that you talked about have already taken place, for example, the stimulus plan passed by Congress through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which was passed last winter raised the average monthly food stamp benefit per person by about 17 percent. The rules have changed to allow�

Rep. MOORE: Exactly.

MARTIN: �people to buy more nutritious food, more fresh food, not just sort of the shelf - long-shelf-life staples that people are accustomed to. Some of those things have already taken place. Are there other things that you need - you think need to happen from a policy perspective to address this issue?

And I do want to just emphasize one point. There are those who criticize the methodology of the study. They say that it just - it overstates the problem, that people say if they're - say they are experiencing food insecurity, it's not a long-term issue. It may be for a couple of days, for example. So I just want to point out that there is another perspective on it.

Rep. MOORE: Those are the people who are eating, who are saying that.

MARTIN: Yes, ma'am. I just want to point out there's another perspective. So if I could just get you to tell me: What else do you think needs to happen right now?

Rep. MOORE: Well, you know, I have been a long advocate of doing a real thorough analysis of what poverty is, giving increased costs for fuels and energy and other things that contribute to an adequate life in the United States. Yes, and I do agree that we've provided more moneys through these programs. But we need a safety net. I think that when you look at the food stamp program, for example, and how it's administered -there are severe consequences for states making errors and mistakes in terms of families who aren't qualified.

I think we need to reduce some of those strictures. I think we need universal eligibility for school lunches. I mean, if there's a school district like mine in Wisconsin where 80 percent of the kids are eligible for a free lunch, we ought not have a reduced lunch and if you don't send in the application you're not eligible. We ought to have that if you're eligible for one kind of program, then you're automatically presumed eligible for other programs.

MARTIN: That's interesting. I see what you're saying. Jan Pruitt, final thought from you. What do you think would help?

Ms. PRUITT: Well, Michel, exactly what the congresswoman said, looking at the poverty line, that number has not changed, or the calculations for the poverty line has not changed since the 1950s. The Thrifty Food Plan has not changed since the '60s, when the program was established. That is the basis of all this, because families, even if you're on food stamps, you're going to a food pantry by the end of the month because it's not enough to feed your family. And there's not enough donated food out there to help families. We need help.

MARTIN: Jan Pruitt is president and CEO of North Texas Food Bank. She joined us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. She's in Chicago attending a conference about solutions to combat hunger. U.S. representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin joined us by phone from her home office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. MOORE: And thank you, too.

Ms. PRUITT: Thank you.

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