The New Faces of Hunger
By Mariela Rodriguez,
LareDOS Staff Writer
The clock is about to strike noon, and you’ve been hungry since you woke. Reality sinks in. You fed your children the last of the cereal before sending them to school. You search frantically through your wallet to no avail. You used the last of the cash to make the rent. It is a week before payday. What will you do?
Constantly yawning and fidgeting, the quick-witted student whose grades don’t reflect his intelligence is mistakenly labeled a slacker. The child’s thoughts and daydreams are not of pronouns or math equations, but of food. He is hungry. His complete lack of focus lies in the food insecurity at home.
A Vietnam-era veteran proudly wearing his service cap sits on a bench at Jarvis Plaza. He is pensive, his thoughts on how he will survive. It is the end of the month and his Social Security check is depleted — all gone to pay bills and pay his wife’s meds — and his $60 in food stamps was long ago spent. He wonders if he has anything to pawn to put a few meals on the table.
Hunger has a new face in Laredo, just as it does in communities across the nation. It is no longer exclusive to transients and the unemployed. Hunger, that thing that gnaws not only at the innards, but also at pride, lives in the home next door and down the street.
About 37 percent of Laredoans live below the poverty line on incomes of less than $36,000 per year. For all the prosperity enjoyed in this city, the disparity between the comforts of plenty and the struggle in food-insecure households supports that statistic.
Many in our city make the calculated choice every day between food, housing, healthcare, or education. For those faced with the grim choice, blessed relief comes from the South Texas Food Bank (STFB) and its soup kitchens, pantries, and Kids Cafés.
In addition to distributing 12 million pounds of food per year to 30,000 families in an eight- county area, the STFB assists Laredoans in applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp benefits.
In January 2013, Texas issued more than $360 million in SNAP benefits statewide, including more than $7.8 million in benefits to 71,589 residents of Webb County — 28 percent of the population.
AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Sarah Lamm who spearheads the STFB effort to get more area residents to sign up for SNAP, said, “One in six Americans is food-insecure, especially in South Texas — that is one in five adults and one in three children. The food bank is meant to handle emergency food distribution, but many of the families that come to us are here chronically.”
Lamm’s goal over the next year is to work with different agencies and people who work in impoverished communities to teach them how to show others to apply for SNAP benefits.
“SNAP reaches so much further in a more efficient and effective way. None of its costs are coming from the Webb County or Laredo community. These are all federal funds that are creating and boosting the local economic revenue. For every dollar spent in SNAP money, $1.90 goes back to the local economy,” she said.
According to Lamm, misconceptions abound about SNAP benefits, such as that they are very easy to obtain.
“For people to access these services they have to provide a lot of paperwork that really shows who they are as a person. It is hard to get all this documentation together. You are screened for a few hours, and if approved, you have to wait 30 days before you are even issued a Lone Star Card,” Lamm said.
Another misconception, she said, is that individuals in need remain on SNAP benefits for a lifetime. Unemployed individuals receive SNAP benefits for three months, but if they do not get a job, their benefits cease.
“Families are on this program an average of eight months during a stint when they need to rely on it until they get more hours at work or get a pay increase. In order to qualify, you need to be working at least 20 hours a week. People are working, but the problem is they aren’t making ends meet,” Lamm said.
“Another myth is that people on food stamps are undocumented and cheating and taking advantage of the system. Those numbers are currently at a record low of one percent. Most people on these resources are trying to support their families and have had a dose of bad luck meeting basic needs,” Lamm said, adding, “With SNAP benefits, it is essentially $1.50 per meal. I would challenge anyone critical of the system to live on that for about a month to see if they can do it.”
At the end of the month, many have to make compromises about what they eat, Lamm said.
“What does that say about how people are nourishing their bodies? If you look around, the cheapest food is the poorest quality food, thus diabetes and obesity are on the flip side of the coin. The financial disparity and food insecurity is all leading to significant health differences between the rich and the poor,” Lamm said.
The STFB, along with the San Antonio Food Bank, is piloting the On Demand program, which fast tracks the system and works with the clients to expedite SNAP benefits.
“Most people find that SNAP is the last resort. They don’t feel prideful of accepting these benefits, but at the end of the day this is something people take as an emergency to feed their families,” Lamm said.
For Violeta Garza, a 47-year-old mother of five teenagers, the STFB’s Adopt a Family Program has provided some much needed relief when food stamps are not enough. “Going to the food bank was a big blessing. If you stretch the food, it can last you two to three weeks. It definitely does help because the little you save you can use on gas or other little things,” she said.
Garza’s life was turned upside down six years ago after her divorce. She went from being a housewife living in Lakeside, to working two jobs seven days a week just to put food on the table for her children.
“It was difficult to get to the point where you can’t take your kids to the dentist, or to the doctor when they are sick because you don’t have insurance or money. When I stopped working my second job in November 2007, that is when I really considered seeking help. My children and I were counting change to pay for gas,” Garza recalled.
Going from economic stability to uncertainty was difficult. She was the first person in her family to apply for any type of government help, which caused Garza to hesitate seeking assistance.
“I knew Medicaid and food stamps existed, but I didn’t know the process to apply. Because at the time I worked two jobs, the assistance I got was minimal,” she said, adding, “It was very humiliating when I had to go to the food stamp office. During one of my interviews, I remember one lady saw I drove a Mercedes and said I could sell the car and put food on the table. I was appalled because she had no idea that the car was all I got from the divorce, or what condition the car was in. I’ve been trying desperately to sell it because I can’t keep up with the maintenance.”
Garza’s SNAP benefits fluctuated because she sometimes worked seasonally, forcing her to reapply to the program.
“It is always a holding-your-breath type of situation, wondering am I going to get $30 or $200 this time. You just don’t know,” Garza said.
At times forced to choose between moving to different apartments to save cash, Garza has lived off of loans to get from one month to another.
“We’ve moved seven times since the divorce. My biggest struggle emotionally is always telling my kids ‘this is the last time we are going to move.’ Working so many hours to ensure my children don’t go hungry, well, as a mom it’s hard because I know I’m not spending a lot of time with them; but as a provider, it is a matter of survival,” she said. Garza receives no child support from her ex-husband.
Retired educator Karina Gomez provides for her elderly mother Ericka, another recipient of the STFB’s Adopt a Family Program. Gomez’s mother suffers from dementia, diabetes, and other age-related ailments.
“We are grateful for the food she receives from the food bank. She is really impressed by the content she gets,” Gomez said, adding, “It absolutely helps to stretch our dollars. My mother is fortunate to have Medicare and Medicaid, but some of her meds are not covered, so I do have to pay the difference out of pocket.” Purchasing nutritional food does not always come easy for Gomez, as she lives on a fixed income and her mother only receives $60 in food stamps.
“With my mom’s diabetes, it is hard because it is not easy to always get the nutritious stuff. The milk that the food bank gives is so nutritional and tasty. She really likes it. Right now we are having a problem with her eating, so when we do get this food, that is a big help,” she said, adding, “We are grateful. Because of my mom’s heath, we tend to not want to go out too much, so the food we get really helps us stock up.”
“When the food bank approved her application, it was truly a blessing,” Gomez said.
VETERANS SERVING THE NEED
In its eight-county reach, the STFB stocks 80 different agencies including Veterans Serving the Need (VSTN), Bethany House, and 40 local and regional pantries for further distribution.
VSTN currently serves 500 veterans and their surviving spouses, many who live on less than $900 a month and are enrolled in the non-profit’s Adopt a Veteran program. Recipients receive 60 to 80 pounds of food per month.
VSTN director Gigi Ramos has been involved with food banks since the 1980s and has seen firsthand the plight of hunger in communities across the nation.
“There is a lot of work in Webb County. Hunger is here. Salaries are just too low, and I feel the reason there is so much hunger is that it is so expensive to live here,” she said.
She noted that over the last 20 years, the cost of fruits and vegetables has increased about 40 percent, leaving financially struggling families with over-processed junk food as viable food options.
“The prices of even rice and beans, a Mexican staple, not to mention the fresh produce, is so expensive. That is why people eat canned food, because they cannot afford anything else,” Ramos said.
It is more common than not that those who struggle to put food on the table may experience severe health issues pertaining to nutrition. There are 25.8 million Americans with diabetes.
Ramos said, “I am very fortunate that the food bank delivers to us. Otherwise I would not be able to get the food and to provide the service to those veterans in need.”
She feels that the federal government needs to step up, because veterans shouldn’t be going hungry. Ramos added that VSTN couldn’t function without the STFB.
“I have a man who walks five miles with a shopping cart to pick up his groceries every month. I am totally heartbroken when I see these people come in, and they are so grateful for the amount of food they are taking home. The good thing is that the veterans are helping the veterans,” said Ramos.
Hector Cantu, who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1993, started receiving assistance from VSTN in 2010.
“I first heard about the program by word of mouth. It was an easy process. From one day to the next I began to get assistance. It took three years before I got help from the Veterans Administration,” he said, adding, “I like the fact that this organization takes care of their own. It really does help out with groceries at the end of the month. This service provides a substantial amount of food that carries you over for weeks.”
Cantu found gainful employment on contract when he was discharged, and then faced unemployment when his contract expired. He receives some military disability benefits for service-related tendonitis.
“People think that veterans have it easy, or that they are getting all the help there is. That is not true. When you get back to your civilian life, you are disconnected from the information on readily available assistance,” he said.
Cantu has been volunteering for VSTN for over a year.
“I wish I could do more. I like what I do, and I feel like I’m giving back some of what they are giving to me. It is not just about receiving the help. It is about returning the favor,” he said
The Bethany House soup kitchen and homeless shelter prepares 1,300 meals a day and has the capacity to house about 120 individuals a night. In January 2014, statistics showed an increase to 707 clients of which two percent were elderly, eight percent had mental illness, nine percent were substance abusers, and one percent were veterans.
“We get a mix of people at the shelter and soup kitchen. Some are homeless, others are of low economic status,” said director of operations Beatriz Salda ñ a.
Bethany House has different delivery services for clients who do not have transportation, Saldaña said. “During the operation hours of the soup kitchen, we have a homebound food delivery program for the elderly and disabled.,” she added.
“They come to us either through referrals from physicians, or even family members who call us and say, ‘My dad is disabled, but I work and can’t go cook for him,’” Saldaña said, adding, “We have an application process and require proof of income and of disability prior to servicing these clients.”
The Street Bound delivery program delivers food to those living on the street who can’t make it to the soup kitchen. Five days a week, dinner is delivered to 175 homeless persons throughout the community.
“There is more that the whole community can do, but there is just a lack of funds. If funding were available, I know we could reach more people. Through the homebound program, we deliver to West and South Laredo. We also get applicants from the East and Northside as well, but because we don’t have the funding to do it, we can’t deliver,” Saldaña said.
Bethany’s soup kitchen serves breakfast and lunch five days a week for 247 clients and provides weekend meals to those staying at the shelter.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 16 million children in the United States live in food-insecure households, and 21 million children rely on free or reduced-price lunches at school.
Lamm said, “Hunger is having significant effects on the development of children. A malnourished child isn’t able to concentrate in school. What does that mean for the future of the American workforce?”
For many children, their only hot meal of the day is served at school.
According to the documentary A Place at the Table, on average $1 is spent on a school lunch — which gives rise to questions about the quality of the food being served to children.
STFB runs 19 Kids Cafés, the after-school meal program that feeds 2,000 children Monday through Friday. The program offers hot, nutritious meals to children at risk of hunger. Bethany House has been involved with the Kids Cafés Program since 2002, and prepares food for 145 children in six different colonias.
Casa de Misericordia executive director Sister Rosemary Welsh said, “Individuals think that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but many times they can’t. Many people in the state of Texas are one precarious step away from poverty. I think the whole thing is that people don’t realize how much others are struggling.”
Welsh reflected on the magnitude of hunger in the face the nation’s wealth.
“It is amazing we don’t realize that people don’t have enough to eat. To me it is very sad that we are among the wealthiest countries, and we can’t figure something out,” she said.
STFB marketing director Salo Otero said, “It’s almost impossible for a family living on minimum wage with three or four children to make ends meet. To address the issue of hunger, people must stand up to urge employers to pay living wages,” he said.
Otero urged Americans to speak up to demand a stop to cuts to programs that help those in need.
He cited the recently approved Farm Bill that changes environmental regulations on farms, aid to dairy and sheep farmers, and the kind of food that will replenish the nation’s food banks. While the cuts will save billions in funding over 10 years, it will reduce benefits to $90 a month for 850,000 SNAP recipients.
“We need to raise awareness that there is hunger right here, right now. If we don’t talk about it, enough, it’s like it is not happening,” Otero said.