BALTIMORE – Children, the elderly and the working poor are more likely than ever to turn to charitable organizations for food in Maryland, according to a new survey by the Maryland Food Bank.
Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, said that when he started volunteering in 1979, it was mostly single black men looking for a meal. But today, he said, food pantries have seen their clientele grow to include women with families and people who work.
“In the early 1980s, you didn’t see elderly people or disabled folks at soup kitchens,” said Ewing.
“Then, 19 years ago, we didn’t have a name for it, but now we call it the working poor,” he said.
The study, released Tuesday, was part of a national survey by Van Amburg Inc. for Second Harvest, a national network of food banks that includes the Maryland Food Bank.
The survey polled recipients of emergency food assistance around the country last year to determine that more 21 million Americans are served at “emergency feeding sites” and that they are often people needing food for their families.
“This study illustrates not only the extent of the problem of hunger in America, but breaks the stereotypical image of who is using charitable food programs in Maryland and the nation,” said Ewing.
The Maryland Food Bank distributed hundreds of mail surveys and conducted interviews with 395 clients at 66 agencies and found that, of its food pantry patrons:
* 52 percent are women.
* 31 percent are under age 18.
* 16 percent are 65 or older.
* 41 percent have at least one adult with a job.
* 65 percent are African-American and 31 percent are white.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were not included in the Maryland study because residents there often receive food from the Capital Area Community Food Bank.
Officials of the Washington, D.C., based food bank said they are also seeing more families and working poor, but they could not provide numbers specific to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Nationally, 54 percent of those needing food were children or senior citizens, two-thirds were women and nearly half were white, all higher than the Maryland numbers for the same categories.
But Maryland food bank recipients had more education and were more likely to be holding a job compared to the national average, where 36 percent of the recipients had a high school education and 39 percent of households had at least one working adult.
Ewing, who conducted a few interviews himself, said he was surprised at the educational level of some of the clients. About 46 percent are high school graduates, while 4 percent have completed college or beyond, he said.
He does not blame welfare reform for the increase in food pantry business, but said he knows that more and more people have come for help since the cuts took effect.
Clients in the Maryland survey said they come to food pantries because they do not make enough money (51 percent), they are recently unemployed (50 percent) or because of other emergency situations (41 percent).
Ewing, a former fifth-grade math teacher, said even his students could figure out the problem. When people pay out more than they bring in — there’s a problem.
These people are not the “fraud woman, who jumps out of a big car, and uses her food stamps to buy shrimp and steaks.”
“They are hard-working people, who have to chose between eating and paying bills,” he said. “We just want to feed more people and reduce the population of hungry people.”
Ewing said lawmakers need to provide more funding for the food pantries, because more people are using them.
“I don’t see more charitable organizations springing up,” he said. “I’d like for people to give more respect to the ones that already exist.”
He said he hopes the survey, “Hunger 1997: The Faces & Facts,” will help stir up support for food pantries.
“We wanted to counteract public opinion and the stereotype of who it is that uses food pantries and soup kitchens,” he said. “These are real human beings, women, children, retired people, disabled folks and people seeking employment.”