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How serious is it? View from soup kitchens

It's a cold, rainy morning to be waiting outdoors four hours for a brown bag full of emergency food. But more than 60 people, some with children, are hungry enough to line up in advance for a place outside the graystone Cass United Methodist Church for two meals' worth of groceries.

The people waiting for the 60 brown bags of food one day last fall are a cross-sample of the needy: whites, blacks, Latinos, young, old, unemployed, retired, singles, families, the mentally and physically disabled.

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But they have one thing in common - their hunger. That line of 60, now risen to 200 people, are among the thousands queueing up in soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency food centers across the nation. Their numbers have swelled 50 to 800 percent over the last two years, according to a variety of agencies surveyed nationally. These feeding agencies, many filled to capacity, are desperate to staunch this unprecedented flow of the new hungry.

Across Detroit at noon that day, 1,000 people, mostly black families with children, pour through the Capuchin Soup Kitchen (capacity 72) for a hot meal of macaroni and cheese.

Capuchin Kitchen director Louis Hickson says the lines have doubled since June; now they are feeding an additional 1,000 people daily with emergency food packages. The hungry at this soup kitchen wait for up to two hours for seats. When the food supply is exhausted and the staff tries to close the doors, one angry father turns on them.

''Don't tell me you won't feed my children,'' he says, drawing a butcher knife from his sleeve and holding it in the air until they find emergency meals. Tension and sometimes desperation in food lines runs high, food agencies report.

Nancy Amidei is director of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the only national anti-hunger organization left from the US drive against hunger and malnutrition in the late '60s. That drive resulted in government food programs such as food stamps. She says the problem of hunger had nearly disappeared by the late '70s as a result of these programs. But in the last couple of years, she says, the threat of hunger has risen again nationally - as has the number of medically documented cases of serious hunger and malnutrition.

Churches trying to feed the hungry have been pressed into the emergency food business, Ms. Amidei says, adding that requests have increased dramatically. Many parents are forced to bring their children to soup kitchens that have traditionally served alcoholics, former drug addicts, and the homeless.

The situation is particularly acute in Detroit, where lingering unemployment is now at 18.7 percent. A measure of the severity of hunger in Detroit is found at Focus:Hope, a nonprofit food agency in the middle of blocks of burned buildings, piles of rubble, boarded-up abandoned homes, and street signs and windows that seem to have been shot out. At Focus:Hope (where pregnant women and children under six deemed at risk of malnutrition receive US commodities) the number of recipients has increased by 10,000 in six months, to 47,000 in October , according to co-founder Eleanor Jusaitis. Qualifications are stringent: Each recipient must bring a physician's prescription stating the recipient is at risk of malnutrition.

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In New York's Spanish Harlem, an anthropologist, Dr. Anna Lou Dehavenon of the East Harlem Interfaith Council, reports that family emergency food requests are up from 130 in 1980 to 2,344 so far this year. In a study of East Harlem hunger, she documents cases of mothers who had not eaten for from one to 10 days. At New York's Food and Hunger Hot Line, coordinator Allen Kahan says emergency food calls have doubled this year, and they're still climbing.

The Houston Interfaith Hunger Coalition of metropolitan ministeries runs BREAD, an emergency feeding network of 62 food pantries. ''We're seeing a tremendous increase, from 1,106 requests for emergency food in May to 3,155 requests in October,'' says Rina Rosenberg, the coalition's director. Ninety-five new families requested emergency food in just one day before Thanksgiving.

She says BREAD's lines are full of homeless families who have come to Houston from Northern cities for rumored jobs, found none, and now live in cars, parks, churches, or tent cities under viaducts. She adds that some are putting their children in foster care because they can't house or feed them. The agency has replaced its packaged traditional rice and beans with emergency food that requires no cooking.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank, which serves 229 agencies in the Southeast, is serving more than 390,000 meals a month through member agencies. The bank's executive director, the Rev. Bill Bolling of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, says: ''The number of (hungry) people on the street has increased tremendously, and has much more to do with unemployment and recession. . . . Many of the people we're seeing living on the street are the 'working poor,' who never had been on welfare.''

In Chicago, an emergency food pantry run by the Episcopal Church's Cathedral Shelter reports a 50 percent increase in the hungry. The Rev. Curtis A. Waltemade, executive director of the shelter, which has traditionally cared for homeless alcoholics, says, ''We're finding suddenly that 60 percent of the people we're feeding are domiciled and families.''

The Salvation Army, which keeps no specific national hunger figures, reports casework service increases of 40 to 50 percent in Cleveland and 36 percent in northern California.

But behind the faceless statistics stand lines of people waiting in quiet desperation for their next meal at soup lines and food pantries.

''Please Receive Aid Donations With a Smile'' says a sign on the pantry door of the Lighthouse Food Closet in Pontiac, Mich. But Valerie, head of a household and mother of four young children, is not smiling as she talks about living on welfare benefits of $285 every two weeks with rent of $350 a month and all those mouths to fill. She is a gaunt woman dressed in a red-and-black lumberjack's shirt and jeans. She has the flat, resigned expression of Walker Evans' Depression-era photos.

''I just feel they (the government) don't allow enough for people to really survive,'' she says. ''I don't think Reagan's doing enough for us. There's days I cry because I can't feed my kids. . . . They've just cut my (welfare) check. What are we supposed to live on? Nothing?''

Valerie, like most people interviewed at 13 soup kitchens and emergency feeding centers, did not want to be identified for fear of government retaliation.

At the Lighthouse, director Maureen Keating says emergency food requests have jumped from 800 families a month in January to 1,200 a month in November in Pontiac, where the unemployment rate is now 30.2 percent.

At Manhattan's Yorkville Common Pantry, not far from Spanish Harlem, Latino Willie T. waits with his pregnant wife and their four small children for emergency food. Laid off from his job as a maintenance man, he had been given only one days' worth of emergency food stamps and told to wait for public assistance. He had been waiting three weeks when we talked. Nearby sits Betty, a young mother who was cut from supplemental security insurance last summer when officials decided she could not claim mental illness as a disability. She was told to wait for a court hearing on reinstatement. To feed her recently fired husband and two small children, she's turned to the emergency food center in the basement of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

''It's kind of upsetting to be here, but I'm thankful to have some place to go. Without it I'd be stuck,'' she says.

Helen Palit, coordinator of the Yorkville Common Pantry, says the facility is now operating at capacity, giving out 1,200 food bags a month. At Yorkville, as at most other food agencies, credentials are checked for eligibility.

A group of retired women at the Yorkville soup kitchen refused to give even their first names for fear they'd lose their social security and other benefits. But they wanted to talk about what it's like to be hungry in old age after they'd worked all their lives. One of them, a widow with silver hair and a brogue, had already survived the Great Depression. She remembers her husband searching in vain for work, the family living on bully beef, home relief, and the coal they doled out at a local police station. She says she thought she'd never go through that again. The night before she'd had a bowl of Rice Crispies and milk for dinner. Today her main meal is a hot, 4 p.m. lunch at this grade-school soup kitchen. Her 86-year-old friend says the 25-cent lunches at the Stanley Isaacs Center for senior citizens help her get enough to eat.

''A lot of us are shaking in our pants, we're so scared,'' she says. ''We have so little and they want to take that away.''

For many of the single people, especially the estimated 35,000 street people in New York, hunger is a constant and often gnawing presence. For Arthur, who lived last winter in a big cardboard box on Lexington Avenue, hot minestrone soup and rolls at the Moravian Church Center's Coffee Pot Project may literally mean survival in this winter's cold.

The hunger strikes everywhere, from the affluent ''silk stocking'' area of Manhattan to Washington's inner-city Zaccheus Soup Kitchen. It includes the overflow crowd of 150 who line up for chili and cole slaw at Washington's St. Stephens's and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, and sing spirituals as they wait to eat.

Says Nancy Amidei of FRAC: ''Poor people are told to do their dying in quiet, not on the front pages - to quietly disappear. When they go hungry I guess they're supposed to do that quietly, too.''

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