One in eight Americans — 42 million people — still struggles to get enough to eat. And while that number has been going down recently, hunger appears to be getting worse in some economically distressed areas, especially in rural communities.
Food banks that serve these areas are also feeling the squeeze, as surplus food supplies dwindle but the lines of people seeking help remain long.
As a result, food banks such as Feeding America Southwest Virginia are trying to shorten those lines by doing more to address the root causes of hunger, such as poverty, unemployment and bad health.
"Why? Because we can't afford to continue to feed individuals on this ongoing basis, the resources that it takes to do that. We'd much rather have less individuals come into our programs," says Pamela Irvine, the food bank's president and CEO.
Right now, the Southwest Virginia food bank distributes close to 15 million meals a year in some of the poorest areas of the state, including Buchanan County in the Appalachian Mountains. The poverty rate there is 29 percent, twice the national average. Feeding America reports that a growing number of county residents — about 16 percent — have trouble getting enough to eat.
'Finding food is a real challenge these days'
On a recent Wednesday morning, about a hundred people lined up in a park in Hurley, a small coal-mining town in the northern part of the county. They were waiting to collect food from the mobile pantry that comes there once a month. Many of those waiting are elderly. Just about everyone carried a plastic laundry basket to collect their groceries.
There was a warm, friendly atmosphere as volunteers handed out canned foods, fresh produce and baked goods. Everyone seemed to understand that their neighbors are going through tough times. Coal mining jobs have been leaving the area for years, and no one expects conditions to improve much any time soon.
Bernice Wolford says the free food is a big help for her family. Her 21-year-old son had a heart transplant, "and he's got a 2-year old baby and he can't find a job or nothing," she says. Many of those waiting on line are unemployed, have serious health problems or can't make ends meet living on Social Security or disability.
And the economic distress felt in the region has also made it harder for Feeding America Southwest Virginia, which used to operate 13 mobile pantries in the area. Now, it runs nine.
"Finding food is a real challenge these days," says Irvine. Shelves at the food bank's main warehouse in Roanoke, Va., about three hours away from Hurley, are mostly bare. The food goes out as quickly as it comes in.
Irvine says food manufacturers are much better these days at controlling inventory, so they have less surplus food to give to food banks like hers. She also gets fewer rejects, like dented or mislabeled cans. "They're not making near the mistakes they used to," says Irvine.
Healthy food? They'll take whatever donations they can get
Another challenge is that coal companies used to be among the food bank's biggest donors. But many have gone out of business. Donor fatigue is also a problem. Irvine says people are starting to get tired being asked for more money now that the recession is over.
"They think everybody's recovered. Things look pretty good, right? The unemployment [rate] nationally is down. The statewide average is down. You would think Virginia is doing really good," says Irvine. "I heard the governor say last week it's the lowest it's been in years. And then I think, hmmmm, not in southwest Virginia, though."
Feeding America — a network of food banks across the country — reports that private donations nationally are also going up at a much slower rate than just a few years ago.
The impact is felt on the front lines, in places like Hurley and nearby Clintwood, where about 150 needy families come to the pantry each Tuesday to pick up a box or two of food. Bernard Fleming, who runs the Clintwood pantry, says it's increasingly difficult for him to stock up. He gets most of his supplies from Feeding America. So when they have less food, so does he.
Donations from the local grocery store are also down. Fleming says one of his volunteers used to pick up two truckloads of food from the store at a time, but "he went over there this morning and got three boxes."
Fleming doesn't have a refrigerator for fresh produce, so he has to take what he can get, which isn't always the best food for his clients. Many of them, like Judy Rice, are ill. Rice has to struggle to get up to the pantry counter to pick up her food. She leans on a table to catch her breath before asking — in almost a whisper — if they have any food for diabetics. A volunteer reluctantly says no.
Rice gets the same as everyone else: a box of canned food and pasta, but also cookies, candy and a big bag of marshmallows. She says she'll give the marshmallows to her grandson, but is thankful for everything else. "It helps because it gives you something to eat for two or three days when you don't have anything," she says.
Irvine says the problem is that the healthiest foods are the most expensive and hardest to come by. "I've always struggled with, 'Is any food better than no food, because you can't find the right food?' " she says.
She's concluded that some food is better than none, although she's always looking for healthier options. Irvine says food banks are increasingly eager to find more permanent solutions to hunger, because they can't keep feeding more and more people with limited supplies.
Getting more fresh produce – and health care – to pantry clients
Her food bank has just joined a coop of Feeding America food banks in the Northeast to get more fresh produce. They're also working with local health care providers to deliver more diabetic-friendly foods to those who need them, and to distribute produce in remote areas, such as Appalachia. A representative of one health group was also checking with those waiting on the food line in Hurley to see if anyone needed help signing up for medical insurance.
The idea is that healthy people are more likely to have lower medical bills and to be employed, and less likely to need help getting food. Right now, more than half of the households Feeding America serves nationally have a member with high blood pressure. A third have someone with diabetes.
Irvine's food bank is also doing other things to try to lessen demand. It recently joined forces with the Roanoke Police Department, community activists and others to turn a former crime-ridden nightclub in the city, called Ms. Choc's Lounge, into what's being called a Community Solutions Center.
The plan is to create a community hub where residents can hold meetings and the food bank can operate a kitchen — which Goodwill Industries will use to train those who need jobs how to be food handlers. The meals they prepare will be loaded onto a Feeding America food truck and delivered to needy children in the neighborhood. Irvine said she also hopes to have a small farmer's market to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating.
The project came about when Roanoke Police Captain Rick Morrison approached the food bank about trying to help turn around one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, an area the economic recovery has missed.
"A lot of people just feel abandoned," says Morrison, who works closely with the community. "They feel, what's the point? There's no hope. There's no jobs."
Irvine was interested in the proposal but didn't have the $850,000 needed to buy and renovate the building. Then the city kicked in a half-million dollars in federal community development block grants and one of the food bank's corporate donors, Food Lion, contributed the rest. They hope the project will lead to more jobs and a revitalized community.
Irvine thinks that's the kind of partnership food banks will be increasingly forming, as they try to address hunger in more ways than supplying food.