Food Assistance Used by 25 Million Americans A new survey shows that more that 25 million Americans receive emergency food assistance each year. According to the report, two of the largest groups that receive food from food banks, soup kitchens and shelters, are women and single parents.
NPR logo

Food Assistance Used by 25 Million Americans

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Food Assistance Used by 25 Million Americans

Food Assistance Used by 25 Million Americans

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Growing numbers of Americans turn to food banks and soup kitchens and emergency shelters for food. That's a key finding of a new survey.

Fifty-two thousand people seeking food assistance were questioned last year, and their answers provide a snapshot of hunger in America.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Yesterday in Brattleboro, Vermont, divorced, out of work, housepainter Patty LaVarn(ph) picked up groceries for herself and her kids.

Ms. PATTY LAVARN (Vermont): Soups and juices, spaghetti stuff and sauce, and ice cream, cereals. A little mixture.

BERKES: LaVarn didn't shop at the local Price Chopper; instead, she went to the Free Food Shelf at the Brattleboro Drop-In Center.

Ms. LAVARN: I know for single mothers it's, you know, really hard for them. And they're really not really getting any support. And the jobs are very scarce here.

BERKES: Women and single parents are two of the biggest groups getting food from food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters according to a survey released today. It's a product of America's Second Harvest, which supplies most food assistance programs.

Last year, researchers interviewed 52,000 people seeking food. Many had jobs. More than a third of the households surveyed included working adults.

Ertharin Cousin is an executive at Second Harvest.

Ms. ERTHARIN COUSIN (Chief Operating Officer, Second Harvest): The notion that you can work and work a full-time job and still not have enough money to feed your children and feed your family is a notion that should be alarming.

BERKES: It's a fact of life for Dana Waterman(ph), a laid-off roofer in Brattleboro. He's now cleaning motel rooms, apartments, and houses, and getting food at the Drop-In Center.

Mr. DANA WATERMAN (Vermont): Because the rent's so high, and everything's just high, the heat, the price to get back and forth to work, the gas. It's all just too high right now.

BERKES: Waterman says he makes $800 a month. Rent alone is $750, gas for the car eats up the rest.

More than a third of the people surveyed for Second Harvest said they had to choose between food and rent, mortgage payments, utility bills, medicine or doctors visits.

This doesn't surprise Suzanne Bower(ph), who runs the Senior Center in Cadiz, Ohio, which distributes free food.

Ms. SUZANNE BOWER (Ohio): There was a gentleman I talked to today. He's went to get medicine, it was $79 dollars that he would have to pay for, like a co-pay. So he just didn't get it. That's just an everyday occurrence.

BERKES: Bower notes something else that shows up in a second survey commissioned by Second Harvest. Thirty thousand food distribution agencies were also questioned. More than 40 percent said funding problems threatened their work.

Ms. BOWER: Our funding is less now than it was ten years ago. And we have more and more people to serve. And then with the baby boomers coming on... You know, where's the money going to come from to help these people?

BERKES: Second Harvest says its survey indicates its feeding two million more people since its last study five years ago. The group's Ertharin Cousin blames both the economy and government funding.

Ms. COUSIN: Wages for many poor families in America, as well as government benefits have not kept pace with the cost of food in America.

BERKES: Cousin cites two examples: A third of those surveyed reported receiving food stamps, but on average, they said, a month's wroth of stamps fed them just two and a half weeks. And a program delivering monthly food boxes to needy seniors has been cut completely from the proposed federal budget.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.