Academic journal article Social Work

Living on the Edge: Examination of People Attending Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens

Academic journal article Social Work

Living on the Edge: Examination of People Attending Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens

Article excerpt

Reported increases in demand at local food pantries and soup kitchens and the proliferation of additional sites to meet that demand have raised the issue of the adequacy of the response to hunger in this country (Second Harvest, 1998). This article examines this issue by presenting information on individuals who use emergency food relief (EFR) programs to supplement their food needs. The data are from an ongoing study of people receiving food assistance services from food pantries and soup kitchens in Virginia. The article presents descriptive demographic and employment information to assess why these people are seeking food assistance, what other economic risks they experience, and their potential for long-term dependence on emergency food assistance The article also examines these respondents' use of the food stamp program (FSP)--the major federal nutrition program that serves people who are poor. The FSP is intended to help households buy a nutritionally adequate diet; thus, it should serve as an ongoing s afety net for low-income house-holds. However, increases in emergency food assistance use suggest that the FSP may not be meeting the food needs of many households. The article concludes with suggestions for social work interventions to address issues of food security. Nutritional well-being for vulnerable individuals and families, although not directly the focus of social work practice, is an important component of healthy biopsychosocial functioning and results in challenges for practice and policy.

Hunger and the U.S. Response

Despite a strong economy, anecdotal evidence and ongoing studies reveal that hunger continues to be experienced by millions of people in the United States--a "food rich" country by all standards (Eisinger, 1996; "Hunger rising," 1998; Pugh, 1998; Rivera, 1997; Sarasohn, 1997). A recent study by Second Harvest (1998), one of the country's largest private hunger relief agencies, suggests that cutbacks in government welfare and FSPs, low-paying jobs, and rising medical and child care expenses contribute to an increase in food insecurity in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as limited or uncertain availability of nutritious and adequate food, whereas hunger is "the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food" (Hamilton et al., 1997, p. ii); people who are "food secure" are defined as "households with assured access to enough food for an active healthy life" (Hamilton et al., p. ii). Using these definitions, a USDA-sponsored survey using national data from the food security supplement of the Current Population Survey, estimated that 10.5 million households, or 10.2 percent of all U.S. households, were food insecure in 1998. About 36 million people lived in these households, of which 14 million were children under 18 years of age (Food Security Institute, 1999).

The USDA operates 14 food assistance programs to address various aspects of food insecurity and hunger. (American Dietetic Association, 1998). The FSP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the school lunch and breakfast programs are the cornerstones of food assistance programs. The FSP is the largest and best known of the federal nutrition programs.

The Food Stamp Program

The FSP was first born in the late 1930s during the wave of unemployment and poverty that swept the nation. It was conceived as a program to help farmers and to feed hungry people during the Depression era. It ended, however, in 1943 when surplus commodities were needed to feed soldiers (Galer-Unti, 1995; Ohls & Beebout, 1993). Although the Eisenhower administration initiated a surplus commodity program in 1957, hunger did not make the national agenda again until the 1960 presidential campaign. When he took office, President Kennedy doubled the surplus commodity program and revived the FSP (Maney, 1989). …

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