In a state of plenty, people are still going hungry as food pantries struggle to fill the need
By K. Chandler
Beyond the swaying palm trees, white sandy beaches and upscale bars and restaurants lining CityPlace and Clematis Street, there exists another world – one that might be likened to the ‘underbelly’ of West Palm Beach – a world you won’t see depicted in any glossy tourism brochures or magazines.
Nearly one million people scattered throughout Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties are struggling to put food on their tables each day. Incredibly, approximately 28 percent or nearly 300,000 are children, ranking Florida fifth among the 50 states when it comes to overall food insecurity and 12th when it comes to childhood food insecurity – in a state that boasts some of the wealthiest inhabitants in the world.
Making matters worse, a whopping 30 percent do not qualify for government food nutrition programs and must rely on food banks, soup kitchens and emergency food vouchers.
Some statistics regarding food insecurity in South Florida:
· One out of every four children in South Florida goes to bed hungry.
· One hundred and fifty thousand seniors are forced to make the painful choice between coming up with the rent; paying utilities, purchasing medications, or putting food on the table.
· 50 percent of people experiencing food insecurity are the working poor.
· Over 300 million pounds of fruits and vegetables are thrown out each year in South Florida.
· In Palm Beach County alone there are upwards of 200 soup kitchens/food pantries extending from Jupiter to Belle Glade, and down to the Boca Raton/Deerfield border, and still the problem of hunger persists.
According to Feeding South Florida, the nation’s largest hunger relief charity, Palm Beach County outstrips all other South Florida counties in terms of having the highest percentage of people who not only lack food on a regular basis (35 percent) but who also do not qualify for SNAP and other government nutrition programs.
For its part, Broward County has the largest percentage of individuals (15 percent) experiencing food insecurity, which by definition is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food; while Miami-Dade has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of children, who routinely suffer from food insecurity (26 percent).
Profiles of people facing food insecurity
Melissa K. a 42-year-old mother of five and grandmother of four – nearly all of whom live under one roof — doesn’t know what she’d do without food pantries. “I can’t tell you how many times food pantries have saved us. A lot of times during the season they have fresh squash and green beans. Green beans seasoned with smoked neck bones with cornbread and rice – now that’s a meal! Plus it helps make your food budget stretch, especially when you’re trying to feed nine people. Believe me it’s not easy.”
Virgil B. held a good manufacturing job up north until the plant closed down. Moving to South Florida he now stows his bike on the rack of Palm Tran buses as he seeks out fishing holes to go to during the day. Later, he cleans the fish and cooks them on his small outdoor grill, before retiring for the night in a small pup tent in the woods. Other times he drops in to various soup kitchens for a hot meal. He hasn’t watched TV in over a year, but says he’s kind of gotten used to that now, and even prefers the quiet peacefulness of his current living situation.
Janie W. an older, wheelchair-bound amputee also finds it necessary to go to food banks and soup kitchens. “I get food stamps, but they don’t go far. By the time I pay the rent and my medications, there’s not a lot left over. I don’t have transportation, so I am glad that I have this food kitchen near my house. At least I can roll my wheelchair over here, when it’s not raining, and get a hot meal once or twice a day, since I don’t have cooking facilities in my room.”
Monique H., 21 a student at Palm Beach State College has also had to resort to food banks. “Times are rough. When I don’t have the money to buy food for myself, I resort to using food banks. Otherwise I’d have to turn to my mother, but she can’t always help me so I go to the food pantry. You got to do what you got to do out here to survive – that’s just how it is in the world today.”
Macomber puts onus on state’s shredded safety net.
According to Mary Macomber, Chair of the South Florida Hunger Coalition, the face of hunger has shifted. “It is no longer the typically homeless person; now it’s the under- employed, children, and older adults. It’s no longer baby boomers helping both their children and their aging parents, now we’re seeing multiple generations’ all living in the same house with grandparents trying to help their kids and grandchildren.
“In Nov 2012, the Sun-Sentinel reported that the South Florida metro area was rated last in job creation of the largest 10 metro areas in the country. The problem is that the safety net has deteriorated for just about everybody, thanks to the Florida Legislature which has left people virtually hanging by a thread.”
“Hunger is a horrific issue here, and it’s getting worse. It’s like being in the eye of the Tsunami,” stated Sari Vatske, VP of Community Relations for Feeding South Florida, which is part of the Feeding America network consisting of 202 food banks.
“We fed 15,698 kids during the summer of 2013, and this was only 11 percent of the kids who needed food. Currently, 65 percent of our Broward County elementary schools are on free and reduced lunch; only 35 percent can cover the full lunch cost – that tells you how bad the situation is.”
So compelling is the issue that Feeding South Florida has banded together with the Broward County Housing Authority, Florida Impact (out of Tallahassee) and Broward Wheels on Meals (which formerly serviced the elderly), to feed children right on-site in the housing complexes where they live.
Vatske believes there is a long-term solution. “Our vision is for a hunger-free Florida. The meal gap is still great. Distributing food is a first step. Connecting folks with benefits, emergency services, jobs and workforce development is another crucial component in the equation if we are to help people transition from dependency to self-sufficiency.”