Hunger in the ‘Burbs: Food Stamps Among the Affluent

By Natalie Pompilo
Inquirer Staff
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FOR YEARS, the woman and her family organized food drives for the food pantry at Lansdale’s Manna on Main Street. They were, executive director Tom Allebach said, among the agency’s most loyal supporters.

Then the husband lost his job and had to take a lower-paying one. Once a stay-at-home mom of four, the woman couldn’t find work and decided to go to graduate school.

The family became Manna food clients.

It’s becoming a surprisingly common phenomenon. People who formerly donated food now need food, a phenomenon reflected at food banks throughout the region that report an increasing number of clients, particularly in the suburbs.

“The need is truly increasing in the suburbs at a rate that is far greater than the rate it’s increasing in the city,” said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief agency. “Not to say that there isn’t an increase in the cities, but the increase in the rate for the suburbs is frightening.”

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 670,000 people in the greater Delaware Valley in 2010 were living in poverty, with 40 percent of them in the counties surrounding Philadelphia.

A study of food-stamp usage since 2007 by Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project found shocking increases in usage in the suburbs: A median increase of 60 percent in affluent suburbs, 46 percent in middle-class suburbs and 48 percent in stable working communities.

The increases, said Temple professor David Elesh, “are not in any of the traditional places you might think.”

“You’ve got a lot more people in the suburbs having to use food stamps to supplement their budgets,” he said. “That’s where the growth is and where I expect the growth to continue for some time, because we haven’t seen any change in people’s ability to find work or raise their incomes.”

So food pantries like Manna on Main Street have seen steady increases in users, about 20 percent a year since 2007.

“There are pockets of poverty, but more of what we’re seeing is people who were middle class who are being dragged down into the lower middle,” Manna’s Allebach said. “We’re planning for it to continue.”

Gabriella Mora, project manager for the Food Trust’s Montgomery County programs, said that people don’t think that her area, which has affluent pockets, would need help.

“It’s not perceived as an area of need,” she said. “But we’re seeing people who used to volunteer at pantries are now accessing them. It indicates increased need and increased hunger.”

She also noted that those who use the food cupboards are coming back again and again.

“It’s not necessarily just as a supplemental or a one-time thing,” she said. “It’s sustained usage.”

Allebach said it was difficult to get clients to share their food-struggle stories with the media. Many are embarrassed by their reliance on these services. He knows, because he was once in a similar position.

More than a decade ago, he said, he was out of work and neighbors began dropping food on his front porch.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “When I was accepting these things, I knew I wasn’t a bad person, but I felt like I should be doing my part. I shouldn’t need extra help.

“Everyone wants to fit in and feel like they’re normal.”

On a recent weekday, about a dozen people were lined up and waiting at Manna’s door before it opened for its daily food pantry. Participants are allowed to “shop” at the pantry twice a month. Their food allotments are based on their family size.

Manna volunteer Rich DeSipio, 68, was taking sacks of apples and re-bagging the fruit into smaller portions.

“The more we have, the more we dispense,” said DeSipio, of Jeffersonville. “This way everybody gets something, and something is better than nothing.”

In the 3 1/2 years that he’s been volunteering, DeSipio said he’s noticed a steady increase in Manna clients. Another change? More families with children.

“People come in who don’t look like they need help, but they do,” he said.

Volunteer Gerald Sames, of Souderton, said some clients talk with him about the hard times they’re facing.

“Some of them don’t have work or can’t find anything, and the rent is due and the bills are due,” he said. “This way they can skip the grocery shopping and save money on that end.”

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