In many elementary schools, hunger is not hard to spot. Just show up early when thousands of children arrive to get breakfast -- for free. And no, this is not because they can't get out of bed in time to eat breakfast before the bus leaves; it's more likely because there is no food in their house to serve for breakfast. And for some of the children on the free meal program, school lunch may be the last meal of the day.
At the beginning of the traditional season of bulging waistlines, the Children's Alliance of Washington has co-sponsored a focus group study of hunger in Washington, providing a stark reminder of how hard some people are struggling to put food on the table. Regardless of the booming national economy, one out of every three school-age children in Washington state qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal at school, and as many as 240,000 children face hunger on an annual basis.
From 1995 through '98, the last time period for which state-level statistics are available, Washington placed in the top 10 for hunger of all the 50 states.
"In the midst of huge fortunes, we hear from these participants that Washington's families face hunger," says Laura Strickler, Child Nutrition Policy Manager at the Children's Alliance in Seattle. "This isn't the kind of hunger we see in Africa, where there is a lack of food. As a nation, we waste 96 billion pounds of food a year. These working families are surrounded by food but can't afford to purchase it."
A 1999 survey of the state's food banks revealed significant increases in demands, especially in rural areas. Also increasing was the number of working families using the food bank as an emergency source because they didn't have sufficient income to support their family.
"We serve about 13,000 people each month in Spokane, and half of them are children," says Susan Faltermeyer, director of development at the Second Harvest Food Bank (formerly the Spokane Food Bank). "This food bank is an emergency food distribution center, and we send out boxes to 21 outlets in the county. Every box that a client would receive can maintain their family members for seven days."
Faltermeyer says the food bank is definitely seeing an increase in working poor clients. "We do a client survey and have done so every year for 14 years. What we have found in the last two years is a noticeable increase in working poor. Our feelings on that is that somewhere the system is not working to make food stamps available to the people who need it," she says. "The need we serve is ongoing. Last year in November, right before the Boy Scout food drive, we were out of food, but this year we have been doing a pretty good job." The food bank always needs donations, especially of protein rich food that children may eat, such as peanut butter and tuna fish.
"People should also remember that every dollar we get in donations can be leveraged to $10 worth of food on a family's table," says Faltermeyer.
Statewide, participation in the food stamp program has declined by 42 percent since '96 mostly due to Welfare Reform, but it's still 11 percent above the national average.
This study shows that some eligible families give up fighting what they perceive as red tape to get into the program. Nationally, studies show that the average length of time it takes to apply for food stamps is five hours and two office visits, something that can make it difficult for working poor to follow through applying.
"People have to first pick up an application, then come in and do an interview and then usually come back because they are missing some documentation," says Linda Stone, with the Children's Alliance in Spokane. "Though this is national data, I would say the time frame is pretty accurate for Spokane as well." This study is meant to help troubleshoot this area.
"The Department of Social and Health Services is trying, but a lot of people still have a hard time getting into the program," says Stone. "Especially families who have earned income. Their income varies, and they must report the changes, and some of them work jobs where you don't know how many hours you are going to work until you wake up in the morning. It's hard."
The study, titled Listen to Us, Voices of Washington's Hungry Families, is based on interviews and focus group discussions held across the state with a total of 88 participants. The focus group members were all working parents with families to feed, and they were recruited through the local food banks.
Overall, participants commended community-driven programs such as food banks and the free meal programs at schools, but were frustrated with the food stamp program. Of the focus group participants, 72 percent reported cutting the size of meals or skipping meals because there wasn't enough money.
One parent said: "Sometimes I've gone day after day just having water and a bread roll." Another said: "It sounds gross, but my kids would eat their cereal with water -- we didn't have milk."
All focus group participants were used to stretching meals, and foods such as Top Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese were frequently mentioned as meal and money stretchers. Unfortunately, these are also foods that are low in nutrients other than fat and sodium.
Study participants agreed that they only visit food banks as an absolute last resort, and it's not like the study participants are unwilling to learn how to get by on a small budget. Most wanted help on how to stretch the food budget by substituting expensive ingredients with low-cost ones, though they are already doing all they can to stretch the donated food.
The study is now being presented to state legislators, and the sponsors hope it will provide information about the nature of the problems faced by Washington residents who have to deal with hunger on a regular basis. Also, the study may be a good source of information for people who have a hard time imagining what it's really like to go hungry.
"The purpose is to give everybody, on a state and local level, good information about what the customers experience," says Stone. "Our hope is the information will be used to make changes in programs that will make it easier."
& & & lt;i & The Second Harvest Food Bank in Spokane always accepts donations of food or money. Call: 534-6678. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
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