"How Are We Going to Eat Today?"
Tracking hunger in this land of plenty across all ages, races and ethnicities—and discovering some new approaches to fighting it
*Editor’s note: Some names have been changed at the request of those identified in the story.
It’s a Thursday at the end of the month. The food stamps have run out and all that’s left are the last rice and beans in the pantry. Tracy* has served rice and beans twice this week already.
“What do you mean, it’s just rice and beans?” complains Joanna*, Tracy’s 17-year old daughter. She’s a pretty, active girl in high school—a homecoming queen—and she wants and needs much more. “Mom,” she insists, “I need meat.”
Joanna is hungry. So is her brother, Ron*, 19, and her younger sister, Sarah*, 14. In the past they wouldn’t have had breakfast if not for a school breakfast program. Ditto for lunch. Dinners this week have consisted of noodles and the monotonous rice and beans.
The family’s money is meager and has to stretch to cover the bills, which it often doesn’t. Periodically the apartment’s water is turned off for non-payment. The same goes for electricity.
It’s not as though Tracy, 42, isn’t working. She has a job at a nonprofit pregnancy counseling center, talking to the girls and women who come for tests and assistance of all kinds, from the medical to the spiritual.
Pregnancy is something Tracy knows about. She has never married; her three children are the progeny of two different fathers—neither of whom is present and whose whereabouts are unknown. She aborted her first child at 17 and resolved never to do that again. “When I got pregnant with the third one, I was going to put her up for adoption, but I backed out,” she recalls.
Her job pays a modest salary and she lives in Section 8 housing with rental assistance, which she started receiving just before Sarah was born. There are no other sources of personal income. Her parents in Ohio cut her off long ago. She receives food stamps, but often relies on what she calls “miracles,” unanticipated acts of charity that get her through her days. She is neither an alcoholic nor a drug abuser.
Meanwhile, costs never cease rising, whether for groceries, utilities or gasoline.
For a time, Ron was going to college on a football scholarship, but then he was injured and had to drop out. Even when he was at school he subsisted largely on a diet of Ramen noodles, and his requests to Tracy for money had to go unfilled. Now he works as a masseur and brings some cash to the family. Nonetheless, Tracy says, “There are days when we were praying: How are we going to eat today?”
Katie Schweikhardt works as the Collier County coordinator for the Harry Chapin Food Bank, trying to find innovate ways to deliver food to the needy.
The term "Paradise Coast” conjures visions of, well, paradise: the white, sandy beaches, posh restaurants, and picturesque shops of Naples and Marco Island and the broad landscapes of the Everglades. Add the attractions of Lee County and one has a picture of a carefree tourist destination, playground and retirement haven.
It’s the picture that the area pro- motes to the outside world, and it is certainly a facet of Southwest Florida—but not the reality for many. East from the coast are the fields of the area’s farms with their migrant workers, pockets of quiet poverty and, incredibly for such a wealthy area, hunger.
The concept of Southwest Florida hunger may evoke images of the homeless, migrant and poor immigrants. There is an element of truth to this, because there is poverty and hunger there. But hunger in South- west Florida has broadened.
The great recession that started with the crash of October 2008 hit especially hard in Southwest Florida, particularly as the construction industry collapsed and rippled through every other economic activity: retail, hospitality, tourism, real estate.
While the area is coming out of the recession, hunger in Southwest Florida today encompasses all ages, races and ethnicities.
The extent of the problem has been extensively documented and researched by the primary anti-hunger agency in the area, the Harry Chapin Food Bank (HCFB), named after singer Harry Chapin, who in the 1970s donated the proceeds from every other concert to anti-hunger causes and lobbied Congress for federal anti-hunger assistance, until he died in a car accident in 1981 at age 39.
The study Hunger in America 2010, perhaps the most comprehensive done to date, found that in Southwest Florida 63 percent of households dependent on charitable assistance lack consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food. That’s much higher than the 46 percent of households in such straits statewide and 36 percent nationally.
On average, these people have annual incomes of $11,200. Many recipients head households, have lost jobs and are often underemployed.
According to HCFB figures, currently 40 percent of its recipients in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties are children, 50 percent are in the working-age range and 10 percent are classified as seniors.
Today, anti-hunger charities like HCFB, local charities and other nonprofit institutions are facing new challenges. Cuts in federal assistance as a result of sequestration and funding reductions are crippling government support for the needy, which the charities can only partially cover. Affected programs include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and the National School Lunch Program.
But one of the most targeted programs is the federal food stamp program, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program lost $5 billion in annual funding from Congress in November despite having nearly double the number of recipients it did in 2006.
In Florida, about 1.9 million people were receiving SNAP assistance as of June 2013, according to a fact sheet issued by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Stateline, the daily news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates that 3.5 million or 18 percent of the population will receive SNAP assistance in 2014. Of this population, 1.3 million are children.
On average, Florida recipients received an annual benefit of $255, according to Stateline. A cut to this year’s SNAP program translates into a reduction of $36 a month for a family of four.
Local charities must find a way to make up the difference, and they are finding new, innovative and creative ways of doing it.
It's need that drives Katie Schweikhardt, 38, HCFB Collier County coordinator and director of programs. When she learned that a 5-year-old friend of her son’s wasn’t being properly fed, she felt at a loss. “I didn’t know how to help,” she says.
As it turns out, she took meaningful action, leaving her previous practice as an estate planning and real estate lawyer and devoting herself full time to HCFB.
In her current capacity, Schweikhardt oversees all HCFB operations in Collier County, from donations and collections of food to distribution and management and operations. It’s a position that gives her insight into the extent of Collier County’s needs and the populations that must be fed.
It also gave her an appreciation for the impact of the 2008 recession and the spike in nutritional needs that it caused. But Schweikhardt points out that the need began well before 2008. “The day Hurricane Wilma hit is when the recession hit Southwest Florida,” she says. That was 2005. The economic downturn piled on the problems.
Schweikhardt has also made a personal commitment to the needy, and that was on display in 2012 when she and Steve Popper, president of Meals of Hope, another Collier County nonprofit, attempted to live on a food stamp allocation of $34.89 for the week in a very public way and their efforts were chronicled in news stories and blogs through the Naples Daily News.
The experience not only taught Schweikhardt the difficulty of juggling nutrition on a meager food stamp budget; it made her aware of the scorn and ridicule that the needy face.
“The experience was difficult,” she recalls now. “This was due to the lack of variety of food, the need for immense amounts of planning and preparation, and the general attitude of the commenters on the blog.” As she wrote at the time: “While the story will be forgotten, those who receive SNAP benefits will continue to live with the scorn of others. This was not something I expected to so deeply experience, and it will stay with me much longer than any other lessons learned this week.”
Despite indifference, Schweikhardt and volunteers from area churches and nonprofit organizations labor mightily to collect and distribute food. But mere collection and distribution is not enough. The recession and changing needs have driven a requirement for innovation and experimentation and a constant need for new tools and techniques in combating hunger.
One innovation was a change in the nature of the food HCFB was distributing, emphasizing fresh pro- duce rather than traditional staples of canned fruits and vegetables.
Another change was an effort to broaden its geographic scope and take the food to the people. Mobile pantries—trucks full of food—go to places of need and distribute it.
In 2011, the mobile pantries were funded with a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Naples Children & Education Foundation, which allocates funds raised during the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival.
In an innovation designed to reach school children, HCFB also experimented with a backpack program, filling backpacks with food and providing them to schoolchildren to take home. In January 2013, however, the HCFB management decided instead to switch to food pantries at local schools. These enabled whole families to come to the schools to pick up their food.
But HCFB is not the only food- related nonprofit organization dedicated to feeding the hungry. Fort Myers is home to iSeed, an effort to create “hydroponics in a box,” as its website calls it.
“Our mission is to help advocate and train trainers in innovative agriculture that can provide foods for a family or village,” says Gary Winrow, managing director of iSeed. A retired construction and development manager, he became interested in food security issues after becoming familiar with the needs of the African country of Angola.
“Part of what we’re doing is introducing agriculture that takes less land and introducing more nutrition into the diet,” he says.
Gary Winrow, managing diretor of iSeed, uses his Fort Myers base as a way to showcase his hyrdoponic agriculture modules and grow food for local needy.
iSeed is a classic case of thinking globally while acting locally. An outgrowth of the for-profit organic food company Selovita, it focuses on creating agricultural modules that can be set up anywhere in the world, enabling villages and communities to feed themselves using hydroponic farming. In March 2013, it began construction on a Fort Myers facility to demonstrate the viability of the concept. On that campus, it is gearing up to raise 35,000 pounds of leafy greens like lettuce and 54,000 pounds of tilapia each year.
Locally, Winrow hopes to bring local schoolchildren—and even the homeless—to the campus to raise awareness of iSeed’s techniques and teach them about its hydroponic farming.
And iSeed has been donating its produce to HCFB, local churches and other anti-hunger charities. This past Thanksgiving, it donated more than a thousand pounds of lettuce for distribution to the hungry.
“We’ve got some solutions, we’re energetic and we have some wonderful, passionate people,” says. “We think we can make a difference.”
Life should be good for David O’Boyle. After all, he’s retired from his job as a machine operator at General Motors. He gets a pension, extensive union benefits and Social Security.
He moved to Fort Myers nine years ago. “I moved because of the weather; the rain, the cold, the sleet and the potholes,” he says of his former home in Pennsylvania.
Ordinarily it would be an idyllic retirement in a warm climate. But O’Boyle’s life was changed on Feb. 6, 1986, when he was hit by a car while taking a walk. The driver had no insurance of any kind and although O’Boyle sued him, “You can’t get blood out of a stone,” he muses.
He went back to work only to have a seizure on the job. That was the be- ginning of occasional, unpredictable episodes that ended his working life. It also prevented him from driving again and contributed to the end of his marriage.
Today O’Boyle can walk, but not much more. The money he receives doesn’t cover the bills—especially his ongoing medical bills—and he scrimps and saves on food, which leaves him hungry. He doesn’t eat breakfast except for a cup of coffee, lunch is haphazard and dinner, such as it is, is usually pasta, since that fills him up.
O’Boyle is not alone. He’s a member of a growing population of destitute and hungry people past retirement age.
“We’re seeing really hungry seniors,” Schweikhardt says.
She has been speaking to these people and found that they are mostly women and “a greater majority than in the past are raising grandchildren. Generally, they tend to be a widow whose spouse had gotten ill and she made poor financial decisions. They’re often people who thought that insurance would cover their medical expenses but the expenses have gone up. They’re people who intended to lead a quiet, peaceful life and for whatever reason that tended not to happen.”
Throughout Southwest Florida, HCFB, related charities and church- es are doing the best they can to fill the gaps created by left by cuts in government programs, trying by dint of creativity and compassion to fight hunger and meet the need.
And the donations, the hard work of volunteers and professionals like Schweikhardt, and the thinking of entrepreneurs like Winrow make a difference on the ground.
For O’Boyle, it takes the form of food bank deliveries to his door. “Without deliveries, the way my bills are and the way my money is, my ice box was empty most of the time,” he says. “I have food now and I can pay some of my bills.”
And for Tracy and her family, it’s assistance to meet those last needs at the end of the month. “The need is there for people who are working,” she says. “But even if you’re working you have the need. Unfortunately there’s that last week at the end of the month that stretches you, and it’s hard to get through it.”
Still, she says, “I’m going to stick this out and overcome this.”