Fayetteville Observer - 55,738 estimated to be hungry in Cumberland County in 2013
By Gregory Phillips
For Honica Brittman, the worst part about not having enough to eat wasn't the hunger.
"The worst part is hearing your kids say they're hungry," she said, "and you don't have anything to give them."
The 36-year-old moved to North Carolina with her four children in 2012. She used the grant for her online college course to pay for food and rent at first.
But the Army veteran and former corrections officer could not find work, and the grant money soon ran out.
"It was literally nothing left but the dust," Brittman said. "It was down to just a bottle of ketchup in the refrigerator."
Brittman is a giving soul who donated a kidney to a stranger last year, completing a chain that allowed 10 people to receive transplants. But in that same year, she had to hang back while her kids ate - pork and beans, Ramen noodles, hot dogs - and eat whatever scraps were left. Sometimes there weren't any. Sometimes there wasn't a meal at all.
Brittman and her children, ages 5 to 13, are one family in a growing vortex of hunger that extends beyond caricatures of the homeless and work-shy. It has sucked in working parents and people who lost jobs in the recession after years of service.
Expiring unemployment benefits and delays in benefits earlier this year caused by the switch to a new computer system have all played a part in making the problem worse. Congressional gridlock in Washington allowed expanded food stamp benefits to expire in October, and lawmakers' failure to pass a farm bill threatens the future of the program.
Food banks are stretched thin, with the ailing economy preventing donations from keeping pace with demand.
It flummoxes Shaolin Abrams that the richest nation on the planet is not taking care of its own.
"I'm astounded,'' said Abrams, who operates a mobile food bank in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties. "It doesn't make sense to me that you're overlooking your own country."
Abrams struggles to find donors to what he calls his street ministry, taking food donated by stores and restaurants directly to the homeless. The increasing number of families he sees on his travels sometimes makes him frustrated at the outpouring of donations for overseas disasters.
"You're doing for people there what you're not doing for your own community," he said.
Abrams has distributed food for more than a decade, and locally for the past two years. He sorts food into bags containing enough nonperishable items to feed someone for two or three days.
"Don't believe the hype that the economy is getting better, because it's not," he said. "Those people who have lost their jobs, who have been out of work, unemployment benefits have stopped. These people now, they have nothing."
Hunger is a hard thing to measure. An annual report on basic community needs published by the Women's Giving Circle of Cumberland County found in May that 55,738 people in the county were likely going hungry. That's more than the total student enrollment in Cumberland County schools.
Statewide, 17 percent of the population is in the same predicament.
"For a state that used to consider itself the face of the New South, that is not a statistic that we want," said state Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville. "That's not something we can continue to stand for as a society."
Glazier, a Democrat, said the Republican majority's decision to slash benefits to the unemployed, coupled with the slow economic recovery and the ponderous launch of the NC FAST computer system for recertifying food stamp eligibility have all exacerbated the problem. The state says the recertification problem has eased as the kinks have been worked out, but then a federal boost to the program from the 2009 stimulus bill expired in October.
"We have relied way too much on food banks and private sources that have been taxed to the limit now, really since the recession hit," he said.
Republican state legislators dismissed the claim their policies are inflating the problem.
Rep. John Szoka of Cumberland County said the number of companies showing an interest in North Carolina has gone "through the roof" since lawmakers simplified the tax code and lowered corporate taxes this year.
"The biggest solution," Szoka said, "is creating more jobs and getting our economy in the best shape it can. That will get people working again, and that's my goal."
Republican State Sen. Wesley Meredith of Fayetteville pointed out the state budget this year allocated $3 million to food banks, including $500,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina in Fayetteville. Second Harvest supplies a network of pantries across the region.
According to the N.C. Association of Food Banks, about 170,200 people across the state receive emergency food each week. That means the state funding amounts to less than $18 per person for an entire year.
Glazier said the poverty that causes hunger is at the root of most social problems, especially in the way it affects children, who he said cannot be expected to concentrate at school when they have not eaten properly.
"I don't think poverty and hunger and care for finding food for children and families ought to be a partisan issue," he said. "How best to approach it, we may have some disagreement on, but what we certainly ought to be able to agree on is the objective evidence is we're not meeting the need in North Carolina."
Jackie Jackson at the Teens Do Care food bank in Spring Lake sees that evidence on the second Saturday of every month, when she gives away cases of meat, canned goods and other nonperishable foods on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who shows up.
She saw about 65 families during the first few giveaways two years ago. By last month, that number had grown to 137, with people lined up at 6:30 a.m. for a giveaway that doesn't start until 9.
"The need is out of this world," Jackson said,
Jackson said she sees people who used to get $60 or $70 in food stamps but now receive only $20 or $30.
"They're just needing something to tide them over until they get the stamps," she said. "Where they may have come in once or twice a month, now they're having to come in once a week just to make ends meet."
Her limited supplies mean Jackson often can give a family of six or seven only enough food for three or four people. She used to limit how often families could visit.
"Now, if you need it it's just like, 'Come on in, and if we've got it, we're going to give it to you,' " she said.
Sandra Lawrence, who lives in Spring Lake, has been using the food bank since the federal stimulus food stamp boost expired in October, hurting her ability to get by.
"I have family, but everybody's struggling,'' she said. "A lot of people don't realize how much people don't have and what they go through."
Agencies across the area say the food stamp cuts have made the problem measurably worse.
Fayetteville Urban Ministry once saw between 30 and 50 families a week at its food bank.
"We're in the hundreds now," said Melody Rowe as she finished processing her eighth client of the day on the day before Thanksgiving. More than 200 people came to the ministry looking for food in November.
Since July, Fayetteville Urban Ministry has seen 300 families it had never seen before, Rowe said. While many of them are on food stamps, they are finding the benefits are not enough.
Sheila Smith's husband has diabetes and cannot work. They don't have insurance, and his medicine costs $198 a month. The Fayetteville couple recently got custody of their 4-year-old granddaughter, and they also have an 11-year-old.
Smith works 10-hour days as a waitress and struggles to pay the bills. The family gets food stamps, but it is still a struggle.
"We make do," Smith said. "We buy food where you stretch it out."
That means shopping at Dollar Tree for bread, baloney and noodles.
"You put some hot dogs in them and make a whole meal," Smith said.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - known as food stamps - can't handle the problem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half of food stamp recipients also need help from food banks.
Hunger, though, is not limited to people who are on food stamps. The USDA estimates 57 percent of those at risk of hunger are eligible for food stamps, and more than a quarter are not eligible for any help at all.
Charles and Kim Folger of Fayetteville are among them. They are adopting a child with special needs who requires therapy several times a week. Kim is at home with him while her husband works. It's a struggle.
"Our bills basically are more than what my husband makes," Kim Folger said. "We buy the bare necessities. There's not that opportunity of saying, 'Oh, we're going to have something extra or nice, or even make a chocolate cake.' "
In Washington, the GOP-led House has proposed cutting another $40 billion from the program in the farm bill. The Democrat-controlled Senate suggests cutting about $4 billion, which Rep. David Price of Durham said would be mostly administrative costs.
Just as damaging, he said, is the failure of Congress to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed or to act on President Obama's call to increase the minimum wage.
"A little over $7 an hour is not a living wage," Price said. "Not even close."
Efforts to contact Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn were not successful.
Higher wages mean fewer workers relying on food stamps, Medicaid and other safety-net programs, Price said.
"These families are already being subsidized by all American taxpayers," Price said.
Brittman got help to find work through the Cumberland Community Action program. She has a job now, taking technical calls for a satellite television company. She can work from home and be there to meet her kids off the school bus.
Money remains tight, though. She is a self-described coupon queen, an eagle-eyed sale hunter at the grocery store.
The stress is still there.
"This could end today, or tomorrow, or at any moment," she said. "You don't know that you might get the call that you're being let go."
She still lets the kids eat first.
"I have to snap myself out of it," she said.
Other kids in the apartment complex stop by to eat, too. Brittman feeds them, because she knows their parents will be home late, and often without anything for them to eat.
And she has run into one of her neighbors before. When she was job hunting, he refused to hire her. Then he lost his job, and he and his wife now live nearby.
"They went through a period where they didn't have food," Brittman said.
Hunger does not care what you used to have, only whether you have food right now. Even for the employed, there are no guarantees.
"It could be people you work with," Brittman said, "and you wouldn't ever know it."