BALTIMORE- More than likely you know someone like this:
She’s a high school graduate, probably in her 30s or 40s, who has more than likely been married. She’s a U.S. citizen. At least one person in her household works, or has worked in the past couple years. She would never go on welfare or food stamps -she earns too much, and it would be embarrassing. She’s got a house or an apartment to come home to every night.
And, according to a new national study released Thursday, she is just the type of Marylander who may have to go to a soup kitchen or a food bank just to have something to eat.
“I would say they are average people,” said Lee Lederer, director of the Manna House soup kitchen in Bel Air, describing her clientele. “There are senior citizens, there are a few homeless, there are some with disabilities.”
The Maryland Food Bank, which provides food to community kitchens and food pantries in all but Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, held up the study as evidence that the stereotypical view of a person who might frequent a soup kitchen is misguided.
“What we’ve found is simply a confirmation of what we’ve known,” said William Ewing, the Food Bank’s executive director. “There are families who are trying to make it. These are not ‘welfare slugs.'”
The study, conducted for the America’s Second Harvest national food bank network, shows that about 48 percent of the 357,400 different people who come to Maryland’s kitchens and pantries every year live in a household where there is at least one member is employed. Of those who have worked before or are currently working, over one-fifth have had managerial or professional jobs.
About a quarter of households were receiving food stamps, and 9 percent of respondents said they had received other types of welfare assistance over the past two years.
Of adults at kitchens and pantries, over 70 percent had at least finished high school, only about one in four had never been married and almost 70 percent were women.
Nearly all the study’s participants said they had some type of housing, 85 percent of whom either owned or rented their homes.
The national study was conducted by New Jersey-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc. between February and June of last year. Maryland’s figures come from 411 in-person interviews with kitchen and pantry clients, with a margin of error of about 8 percentage points.
Over half of the survey respondents said they have had to choose between paying for utilities and buying food over the last 12 months. Nearly as many said they have chosen between rent and food, and about 40 percent said they have chosen between food and medical care.
“This isn’t an issue, necessarily, of just hunger,” Ewing said. “It’s an issue of poverty, really.”
Since 2001, the number of different people served in the Maryland Food Bank’s service area has increased from about 45,500 a week to around 50,000, the study shows.
Lederer said that the majority of the people who come to her kitchen at the Bel Air United Methodist Church are unemployed, but that her operation may not be entirely representative of others.
“Different areas of Harford County may find people who need more help,” she said.
Ronald Andrews of the New Life Evangelical Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore said that his church’s soup kitchen and pantry have seen about a 10 to 15 percent increase in people served over the past year.
“Most people have no idea how many hungry people are out there,” he said. “There are a myriad of reasons why people don’t have the wherewithal to buy food.”
Andrews said that his church gave out 7,838 bags of food and 100 tons of produce in the last year. On Wednesday nights, the church provides a hot meal before services, he said.
A large part of the people who come to get food are drug addicts and alcoholics, Andrews said, but a growing group he has noticed is senior citizens who have lost their jobs and cannot find other work because of their age.
According to Ewing, the figures and anecdotes still do not provide the whole picture.
“Numbers go up and down,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal unless you’re one of these people.”
He went on to compare the hunger problem to the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans last year, where families were stranded on their roofs for days. “It’s like that family on the roof every day of the year,” he said.