MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Detroit and the surrounding area has had its share of well-publicized problems. Many are related to the fortunes of the auto industry. Hunger in the suburbs is one problem that's not so well publicized. One-third of the 38 million classified by the US government as food insecure live in the suburbs. We continue our series this week on hunger in America outside Detroit, Michigan, with NPR's Rachel Jones.
RACHEL JONES reporting:
Joy and Chris Hardenberg at the Target store in Auburn Hills six years ago. Chris had just turned 20. He was in the Army Reserves and worked security. Over at the jewelry counter, Joy was 30, divorced with a young daughter and struggling to make payments on a house in Rochester Hills. So Chris came up with a novel way to introduce himself to the bubbly, older woman with the gorgeous smile by giving Joy a ring he'd learned she's wanted but couldn't afford.
Mr. CHRIS HARDENBERG: I got wind that she liked the ring from a co-worker and I went ahead and bought it, and she couldn't believe her eyes at what she saw.
Mrs. JOY HARDENBERG: I barely knew him, you know, and he came up and I couldn't even believe it. I was like, `You've gotta return this,' you know.
JONES: But Chris finally won Joy's heart. The Hardenbergs married in 2001. They moved to a new house in Holly, where the mortgage was more affordable at $775 a month. Chris had a good job in a factory that made crash test dummies, and Joy was a licensed day-care provider. But things started going sour last January after Chris was laid off.
Mr. HARDENBERG: I bounced from job to job until I ended up at a dealership where they offered to send me to school.
JONES: But then after only a week on the new job, Chris was using acid to etch numbers onto the window of a car when some of the liquid splashed into his eyes. He almost lost his right one and had to take several weeks of unpaid leave. Soon, the Hardenbergs were totally overwhelmed by bills.
On this afternoon, Chris and Joy are at home in their pretty white house in a quiet subdivision on Lancaster Way. Joy tears up when she thinks about how stress is affecting her husband.
Mrs. HARDENBERG: And it's hard 'cause Chris wants to be the man in the family and, you know, support us and everything. And he can't do everything by himself. He's working two jobs, working at the dealership, plus he's a paid on-call firefighter. It's hard. We want to give back to other people, you know, instead of needing help all the time. But...
JONES: Chris hates not being able to provide even the basics for his family.
Mr. HARDENBERG: The way my parents raised me, that was just something that, you know, if you don't need it, don't take it. And I didn't feel that we needed it until it came to the point where my little girl and my son want milk and it's not there. I'm going to my parents' house to collect empty pop cans while they're on vacation so they wouldn't know, because I know the first thing out of my dad's mouth is going to be `Here's $100. Can this get you through the week?'
JONES: But then, one of their best friends, Lisa Cain, suggested they get help from the food pantry she and her husband Brian had founded. Here in the heart of Oakland County, the fourth most affluent county in America, many people may have no idea where to turn for food support. In fact, if you don't know where the God's Helping Hands pantry is, you could easily miss it. It's tucked away in an industrial park off of I-75, where heavy traffic streams by.
Mrs. LISA CAIN (God's Helping Hands): I mean, make sure people know they have to pass a lumber yard to get here.
JONES: On many days, by the time Lisa Cain pulls into the parking lot, people are already lined up by the door. There are also large trash bags filled with clothes or donated food that on this day have created a mini mountain near the back door.
Mrs. CAIN: Oh, my word! It's like rabbits. It's growing out here.
JONES: Lisa Cain says the pantry stems from a crisis from her own family. Brian Cain was driving a forklift for a local auto parts maker when the second son, Kevin, was born in 1994. But the baby started having seizures and doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy. Medical bills cut into their food budget, and the Cains had to apply for food stamps. It was an unpleasant experience.
Mrs. CAIN: My caseworker, when he talked to me, I was treated like the scum of the earth and just decided that I was humiliated just way too many times, that I would rather eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for the rest of my life than to be treated like that.
JONES: The Cains credit the Rochester Church of Christ for helping them survive. Church elders helped with the mortgage and utilities, but they were also steered to food pantries for basic needs. The Cains were so grateful for the support they wanted to give something back, so they started God's Helping Hands as a clothing pantry first in 1998 and began offering food in 2001.
Mrs. CAIN: We have cereal. We have rice and spaghetti, corn, pork and beans, carrots, applesauce, cranberry sauce. Those are the only fruits we have right now. We're having a hard time getting any others. We have apple juice, baby formula.
JONES: Most of the pantry's clients are women with children and quite a few are elderly. That's the case on this day when Lisa opens for business.
Mrs. CAIN: OK. Is everybody here for food only? No clothing, just food?
Unidentified Woman: Yes, ma'am.
Mrs. CAIN: All right. You're going to come in...
JONES: After a while, you start to hear the same reasons people come here over and over. Take 20-year-old Shantay Hinton(ph)...
Ms. SHANTAY HINTON: I mean, through the month, you know, we ran--you run out of food after two months--after two weeks and we just went grocery shopping. And everything is getting so expensive now it's hard to buy everything that you actually need.
JONES: ...or Delores Suggs(ph)...
Ms. DELORES SUGGS: Well, me--when I get home, me and my husband if somebody come by and they hungry, we help feed them because we know how it is to go hungry. So whatever they give me here, I fix it up every day and if somebody come by and need it, we share what we have left.
JONES: ...or Sonya Ramos(ph).
Ms. SONYA RAMOS: I got four grandkids moving in with me, and that's hard. We spend a lot of money and sometimes we just don't have any money.
Mrs. CAIN: Twenty-three.
JONES: Last year, the pantry gave away more than 170,000 pounds of food to local families, most of it provided through donations and small grants. For the Cains, the irony is that without their son Kevin's struggle, it never would have happened. Kevin died in 2001, but his picture is displayed at the pantry like a sort of guardian angel. The Cains' third son, Devin, was born in 2002 with the same disabilities Kevin had. Lisa Cain says juggling family and the pantry can be tough, but it's been worth it.
Mrs. CAIN: I guess you could say we had a dream and we were able to fulfill that dream, and with God's assistance it just has really grown. And we just never know what's around the corner, what avenue we're going to be doing next.
JONES: But sometimes not knowing what may happen next can take a heavy toll. Just last month, Chris Hardenberg was fired from his job at the auto dealership because he'd spent too much time looking for a better-paying job. Rachel Jones, NPR News.
NORRIS: You can hear other stories in this series on hunger in America at our Web site, npr.org.