Study quantifies food insecurity – hunger – in the suburbs

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

Hunger quiets people, and there was almost no conversation among the 145 who gathered in an Upper Darby church parking lot, awaiting a charitable distribution of produce, on a recent wet spring morning.

Breaking the silence, Juliana Noble said, “A lot of changes in my life brought me here today.” The 50-year-old mother of a high school senior from Yeadon, Noble was laid off from her job as a course adviser at a Main Line college two years ago.

She now works part-time at a clothing store, struggling to pay the mortgage and utilities. Fresh produce doesn’t fit in her budget, so she shows up at Christ Lutheran Church for the bananas, potatoes, lettuce, and other food in the weekly Fresh for All distribution by Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency.

“It’s very helpful,” Noble said. Then, sounding bewildered, she added in a low tone, “Things are just totally different for me.”

Recession and unemployment have been radically changing lives throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs, pushing more residents toward hunger. Yet, said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, people still have a hard time believing that suburbanites suffer from hunger much as inner-city residents do.

“There are degrees of severity of hunger, much like degrees of severity of heart disease. In the suburbs, we see a lot of ‘angina’ and ‘extreme high blood pressure,’ if not ‘cardiac arrest,’ ” Clark said, extending the metaphor. “We’re not seeing people starving in the suburbs. But it’s a slow drain on the health of the community.”

Some suburbanites also are facing an increasing psychological burden, “an anger that it’s not fair they should face hunger,” Clark added. “Many did what society says to do – get educated, get trained, buy a house – and they don’t know why they’re in this situation. But they are.”

To more accurately assess hunger in the suburbs as well as the cities, Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, recently released a first-of-its-kind estimate of food insecurity catalogued by U.S. counties.

A person who is food-insecure lacks access to enough food for a healthy life. Philabundance belongs to Feeding America’s network of 200 antihunger agencies.

Delaware County, where Noble lives, has an estimated food insecurity rate of 12.5 percent of the population, meaning that 69,260 people there are food-insecure.

Philadelphia’s rate is 20.4 percent, while Camden County’s is 14.7 percent.

The rate in Bucks and Montgomery Counties is 9.8 percent; in Chester County, 9.2 In New Jersey, Burlington County is at 11.4 , while Gloucester County is at 12.4.

Feeding America used a calculation involving poverty rates, unemployment, median income, food cost, and other factors.

At 9 percent, Delaware County has the highest poverty rate in the Pennsylvania suburbs, according to 2009 Census estimates.

Camden County has a poverty rate of 11 percent, while Philadelphia’s is 25 percent.

The loss of manufacturing over the last 20 years is at the core Delaware County’s high poverty, said Linda Freeman, director of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Prospect Park.

Many of Freeman’s clients, who come from 30 nearby communities, are poor and elderly. Most are white. “They’d give their right arm and left leg for a job, but they can’t find one,” Freeman said.

The result is growing food insecurity, noted Alan Edelstein, executive director of Family and Community Service of Delaware County.

In 2007, the pantries, known as the Delaware County Interfaith Food Assistance Network, distributed 700,000 meals, Edelstein said.

By 2008, the number had increased to 900,000, and in 2009 to 1.1 million meals.

The report is not surprising, he said, adding, “We’ve had a so-called jobless recovery, with unemployment rates still high, driving a lot of people to food pantries.”

Many of those suffering hunger are actually the working poor, Edelstein said.

The Feeding America report bears this out, noting that nationwide, 45 percent of people struggling with hunger have incomes above the federal poverty level.

Another difficulty the suburban hungry face is embarrassment. Food insecurity is not as common in the suburbs.

“Gathering in line to receive food is an exposing thing,” Clark said. “You stand in line for food, then everybody knows you’re an American who can’t afford to feed his family.”

In line in Upper Darby, what was certain was that everyone was hungry.

“I really need these fresh vegetables,” said Pat Elliot, 65, of Upper Darby, a laid off accounting clerk. He’s married with a grown son.

“This produce helps me stretch my budget. Believe me, things are tight. It’s tough. It’s really tough.”

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