Melanie Bush noticed a change in the clientele she helped serve at an Arizona food pantry. Bread lines that once featured mostly older men or even single parents held more and more folks from double-income, once-middle-class families.
"The cost of living has increased, but wages haven't kept pace with their needs," said Bush, who worked at the Tucson Community Food Bank last year as a fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center.The observations she made are borne out by a comprehensive national survey released Tuesday that shatters many of the old perceptions of who is hungry in America.
The new study, commissioned by Chicago-based Second Harvest, the nation's largest charitable hunger-relief organization, found the majority of those seeking help to get enough to eat live outside big cities, are mostly white, overwhelmingly female, and either very old or very young.
And increasingly, they have jobs.
"The data run counter to almost every stereotype we have of who needs assistance," said J. Larry Brown, director of the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy. "It's mainly families that are playing by the rules - working or trying to work."
Families like Debbie Horn's.
A car accident seven years ago left her disabled and unable to work. Her husband has a job as a printer for an insurance company, but his salary isn't enough to feed the couple and their five children - four of them teenagers. So once a month, the local food bank delivers a basket of powdered milk, macaroni, spaghetti sauce and other staples to help tide the Horns over.
"I try so hard. But to buy a gallon of milk - it's so expensive," said Horn from her Columbus, Ohio, home.
The Second Harvest survey, conducted by VanAmburg Group Inc., involved one-on-one interviews with nearly 28,000 recipients of food assistance and mail surveys filled out by more than 11,000 charities. The research was conducted in the first three months of 1997 - well before the new federal welfare law's time limits take effect but after several states began moving welfare recipients into jobs.
It found that Second Harvest's network of food banks provided food to 21 million people in 1997.