Ministry members recognize food insecurity as a growing concern

September 1, 2011


During the recession, the nation has seen food prices rising just as pocketbooks are tightening. As a result, increasing numbers of Americans are going hungry.

Catholic health providers are among those concerned about the trend. "Recognizing good nutrition as essential to health and (acknowledging) the accompanying high poverty in our area, we cannot ignore the hunger and at the same time be faithful to improving the health of our communities," said Sr. Carole Anne Griswold, HM, vice president of mission integration at the Mercy region based in Lorain, Ohio.

Rising food prices
The charity Feeding America said this summer that "the need for food assistance increased dramatically during the prolonged and severe recession ... millions of workers have lost their jobs, and many of those who have been able to find new employment still need assistance feeding their families because they lack the same earning power as before the recession."

At the same time, retail food prices are rising, says the American Farm Bureau. It has reported ongoing increases in recent quarters in its market basket survey, its survey of the cost of 16 specific food items. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast in August that production of soybeans and wheat will be down from last year, a supply drop that The New York Times said could continue to push prices up for pasta, meat and vegetable oil and other grocery items.

Slim aid
A record number of people — 45.8 million — now use the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That is nearly 15 percent of the nation's population.

But the assistance has not kept pace with the need, say ministry experts. Many low-income people make a bit too much money to qualify for food stamps, explained Rhonda Brown, healthy communities specialist for St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls, Wis., and regional director of community health development for the western division of the hospital's parent, Hospital Sisters Health System. Others may be financially eligible, but don't apply.

Even those who get food stamps often find the allowance insufficient to cover healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, said Kim Saiswick, director of community outreach for Holy Cross Hospital of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An individual receiving food stamps gets a maximum monthly benefit of $200 in the contiguous 48 states and the District of Columbia; the monthly cost of food for individuals paying moderate prices is well over $200, according to a USDA analysis. For instance, for a male aged 19-50, monthly food costs, for moderately priced foods, are more than $283.

The USDA defines the hunger issue in terms of food insecurity, which it describes as a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members (and/or) limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. The department said the number of food insecure households increased 33 percent from 2007 to 2009.

The working poor
In Lorain food insecurity is linked to unemployment, which is at an all-time high in northern Ohio, and to low incomes, said Nick Rapitis, director of nutrition services at Mercy Regional Medical Center there. A Ford plant closure and steel mill slowdowns have left the area depressed economically.

Rapitis said many of the people turning to Lorain food pantries earn between 130 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level — too much to qualify for federal aid but not enough to afford a month's groceries.

Mercy Franciscan at St. Raphael in Hamilton, Ohio, is a social service agency with a food pantry. Terry Perdue, executive director at St. Raphael, said times are tough in southwest Ohio too.

Between January and June of 2010, for instance, St. Raphael served 127 new families. Between January and June of 2011, it added 706 new families.

Nutrition gap
In Broward County, Fla., pantries are asking their communities for more help. Jobs are scarce and the gap between the impoverished and the wealthy is increasing, said Holy Cross' Saiswick. Children are at particular risk for inadequate nutrition, Saiswick said. Those attending schools that must meet federal standards for nutrition normally have access to healthy options, but those at parochial and other schools not subject to such standards are at risk for food insecurity, she said. Whatever options they have at school, many children are at risk for food insecurity at home, Saiswick said, because their parents may not have access to — or may choose not to buy — nutritious food. She said to achieve food security children need three nutritious meals each day.

St. Joseph's in western Wisconsin's Chippewa Falls has been working through a coalition called the Chippewa Health Improvement Partnership to assess the area's worsening hunger problem. St. Joseph's Brown, who manages the CHIP coalition, said the region includes many rural areas without large grocery stores. They have convenience stores, with little healthy food.

Brown also decried the "lost art of cooking." She said many pantry clients tell area pantry directors that they do not know how to prepare a balanced meal.

Access to affordable, nutritious, whole foods can be a problem in midsized communities and some urban neighborhoods as well. For example, in Lewiston, Maine, a working class community of nearly 36,600, there are few grocery stores. (The city contains two of the state's poorest census tracts.)

St. Mary's Health System's Nutrition Center of Maine, is wrapping up an assessment that confirms healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are more expensive downtown than in the more affluent outskirts. The Nutrition Center, a CHA Achievement Citation winner, has pocket gardens scattered around downtown. It provides nutrition education and operates a food pantry.

Said Elizabeth Keene, vice president of mission effectiveness for St. Mary's system: "There is a Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and care for the poor. We take (that) seriously."

A sampling of ministry facilities addressing hunger

Catholic Health System, Buffalo, N.Y.

  • Collects food and cash for the Food Bank of Western New York.
  • Supports Project Homeless Connect, linking homeless people with local services, including food aid.

Catholic Healthcare West, San Francisco

  • Is investing $2.5 million in California FreshWorks, a public-rivate partnership providing loans to projects that increase the availability of healthy food in underserved communities.

Holy Cross, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

  • Helped found the Million Meals Committee, made up of 75 organizations feeding the hungry.
  • Both Holy Cross and Million Meals build awareness of food insecurity risks, especially regarding children.
  • Holy Cross helps provide homeless AIDS sufferers with backpacks of food.
  • Advocates for legislation improving food security.

Mercy in Lorain, Ohio

  • Collects food and household goods throughout the year for donation to the needy.
  • Many employees donate their own holiday turkeys from Mercy to the poor.

Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, Chicago

  • Partners with local agencies, schools and churches to address hunger.
  • Conducts food drives that benefit the homeless, the hungry and low-ncome seniors.
  • Provides cash donations and clothing to food pantries.

St. Joseph's, Chippewa Falls, Wis.

  • Held a community forum to discuss hunger in western Wisconsin.
  • Is conducting a community-wide audit of food availability.
  • Holds food drives, including one benefitting Haiti.

St. Mary's, Lewiston, Maine

  • Its food pantry provides healthy snacks to low-income schoolchildren.
  • Gives backpacks of food to homeless students.
  • Provides nutrition information and cooking classes, gives tips for eating healthy on a small budget.
  • Gives low-income individuals the opportunity to grow food in communal garden plots. Educates them on how to grow, harvest and prepare fruits and vegetables.
  • Offers coupons and vouchers to the needy for use in a farmer's market.

St. Raphael in Hamilton, Ohio

  • Operates its own pantry.
  • Plans to hire a social worker to provide case management for pantry clients.
  • Collaborates with other pantries to improve efficiency.

The nation's hungry

  • The number of clients served by the emergency food system increased 46 percent since 2006, says the nonprofit Feeding America.
  • More than 50 million people in the U.S. are food insecure, according to Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" resource.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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