Defining America's New Face of Poverty


As the demographics change, some food pantries are thinking up inventive ways to handle new clients who are hesitant about stepping into the organizations. The Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry employs an onsite social worker and expects to change its current system of divvying out pre-made bags of non-perishables and produce to clients.

The pantry will move into a new and larger space that will allow clients to pick the food items that their family needs for the month. The food pantry has concluded that allowing clients to choose their monthly or weekly staples is more empowering than having those choices made by workers. "We're going to allow our clients to shop because it's more dignified," says Abrams.

"There's a lot of pride with coming to a food pantry and a lot of families have a hard time coming here for the first time because then you have to admit to your family that you're not making ends meet," says Abrams, the daughter of a steel mill worker who was introduced to food pantries as a child after her father was laid off.

In a recent study by the Census Bureau, poverty levels were at a 16-year high as more than 1 in 7 Americans fell below the nation's poverty level. The number of people living in poverty is larger than the population of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, Mississippi and Wyoming combined.

"The poverty numbers just confirm what we were learning tracking other factors," says Triada Stampas, director of government relations at Food Bank For New York City. Five years after the death of her husband, Rosalinde Block found herself at a food pantry on 86th Street in New York in desperate need of basic supplies to feed herself and her teenage son.

The 58-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who made her life as a musician, illustrator, author and teacher of music and art, who spent a lifetime embodying a philanthropic spirit, has shifted to the other side as a recipient in need.

"It's kind of like J.K. Rowling," she gamely told, referring to the famous author, who supported herself and her young daughter on welfare while writing the Harry Potter novels that would make her rich and famous.

Block is one of the changing faces of poverty. Typically, food banks and food pantries are non-profit organizations across the country that provide meals to millions of families and individuals in need. The food is oft-times supplied by food banks to food pantries, which then distribute to clients. And, as a result of the economic slowdown that has left more than 14 million people unemployed or underemployed in the United States, these organizations are facing one of their greatest periods of demand.

Despite reports that the country is coming out of its longest recession since the Great Depression, many people are struggling to afford the necessities.

At Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry in Pittsburgh, demand for supplemental food has increased 32 percent over the first quarter of 2010. The pantry that serves 860 clients has seen a return of old clients, that were presumably once doing better, and working families that have fallen on hard times due to reduced hours and job loss. This, despite that the National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected group of economists, says the U.S. recession that started in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009.

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