Study reveals poor, other income levels ‘food insecure’

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Many in Chicago and suburban Cook County don’t know where their next meal is coming from. High unemployment, poverty and other factors combined to make residents in some communities “food insecure.”

Many in Chicago and suburban Cook County don’t know where their next meal is coming from. High unemployment, poverty and other factors combined to make residents in some communities “food insecure.”

What a recent study by the Greater Chicago Food Depository revealed was consistent with what grassroots organizations experience on a daily basis: poor people suffer from food insecurity and hunger at a disproportionate rate, and the face of those who need help feeding themselves and their families has changed to include people with jobs and middle class-level and above salaries.

“What we found was that food insecurity is pervasive throughout the county,” Bob Dolgan, vice president of communications for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told the Defender. “We simply didn’t know exactly how many people were food insecure.”

The study showed a relationship between unemployment, poverty and food insecurity.

The higher the unemployment and poverty in an area, the more its residents were food insecure.

On average, the city of Chicago had an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent, a median income of $46,781 and a food insecurity rate of 20.6 percent, according to the study, which was compiled using a federal study, Food Insecurity in the United States 2009, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Few places in Chicago were as glaring as the Washington Park and Englewood communities on the South Side, and North Lawndale on the West Side. These areas were the only ones to surpass the 30 percent rate for food insecurity. Further, the areas had unemployment rates at least one and a half times greater than the overall city average.

Arneatha Gholston said she knows about the hunger in Washington Park. The 34 percent food insecurity rate that the GCFD study found was hardly a shock to her since her RTW Veterans Center, which she runs with her Vietnam-era veteran husband at 55th Street and King Drive, provides free meals daily to over 100 people.

“How could (food insecurity) not be an issue in this community when we have no jobs in this community, we have no manufacturing in this community, African Americans don’t really own their businesses in this community. How could we not have homelessness and hunger and (high) crime rates when we have not taken the time to develop the industry we need to sustain it?” she told the Defender.

Gholston said she receives no funding for the work RTW does, which includes job placement assistance, and no food assistance from the Greater Chicago Food Depository – which distributes food to a network of pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. She explained that her center feeds people using money from her and her husband’s retirement checks and with an added boost from the community garden adjacent to the center.

Brandon Johnson, executive director of the Washington Park Consortium, said his organization partnered with the University of Chicago and held focus groups where it found food security did have a “close relationship with income and (food) affordability.”

“There is a problem when you can only make food purchases twice a month, when you receive whatever aid or intermittently when the (food) pantry is open,” he told the Defender. “There’s no beating the fact that we have to improve the underlying economics and ability to purchase in our community, and access food.”

Johnson said the issue is not having enough food to feed people, it’s accessing it.

“We have to rethink our infrastructure around food,” said Johnson. “The irony is there is enough food it’s just that people can’t access it. … We have to put more emphasis on food as a human right and hunger as a violation of that human right and begin to rebuild our food infrastructure around that.”

But even communities where residents enjoyed a higher average income, the study showed that hunger insecurity was still a formidable factor.

The southeast community of Chatham, with a median income ($42,861) only slightly below the city’s average and an unemployment rate (9.0) that is almost two percentage points better, is still above the city average for food insecurity. The study revealed a 22 percent food insecurity rate for the area.

Gholston and others agree that the face of hunger in Chicago and in this country has changed.

“There’s a high sector of working poor. They have jobs, they have cars, they have an apartment. But when they get through with all of that, they don’t have no money to buy no groceries. They come here and they eat,” she said.

Johnson said many of the people who were likely donors of food, but find themselves now needing the donations, often try to hide their predicament, even as they stand in pantry line to receive boxes of non-perishable food and fresh produce.

“We have seen upticks in middle class residents going to these food pantries quote-unquote for their neighbors” he said. “We have more and more middle class people coming in.”

Dolgan said hunger and the stress of putting food on the table has extended beyond the city and its impoverished communities and has crept into suburban, middle-class families.

“Food insecurity is affecting more people in suburban areas who never, ever thought they would ever been in this position,” he said.

The study examined suburban Cook County as well and revealed that towns like west suburban Bellwood, with its $55,838 median income, still has a food insecurity rate of 23.8 percent. The town suffers with a 17.3 percent unemployment rate.

Suburban towns like south suburban Robbins and Ford Heights out-paced Washington Park and North Lawndale, leading Cook County outside of the city with the highest food insecurity rates. In Robbins, the median income is $24,083, unemployment is nearly 37 percent and the food insecurity rate is 45 percent. Ford Heights, with its 47 percent unemployment rate and $22,049 median income has a 55.5 percent food insecurity rate, according to the study.

“We’re in trouble, and we’re in trouble more than people realize,” Gholston said of hunger in this country. “I have one family of six that I know everyday their kids are going to come here (to RTW) … and eat.”

Dolgan said the results of the study would help his organization better target its efforts.

According to the organization, it distributed more than 69 million pounds of non-perishable food, fresh produce, dairy and meat, as of the end of its fiscal year, on June 30.

Johnson said a change in the numbers won’t come without a change in how food and hunger is thought about.

“High unemployed and the food problem, while perhaps not one and the same, can be solved with similar methods,” he said.

“Even a poor community like Washington Park spends tens of millions of dollars a year on food and beverage. … But the financial benefit of that buying power is then extracted from the community due to who owns the businesses, taking with it jobs and food affordability and access.”

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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