Defining America's New Face of Poverty

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"People are finding it harder to stretch their budgets because of the rising costs of utilities and increased [health insurance] co-pays," says Becky Abrams, the director at Squirrel Hill.

Fish Foods Banks of Pierce County, Washington, saw client traffic to the seven food banks that serve around 30,000 people a month increase by 34 percent last year and another16 percent since the start of 2010. The fastest growing age group at Fish and St. Leo Food Connection tend to be 55 years old or older.

"To me that says that older workers who have lost their jobs are having a harder time trying to find a job," says Beth Elliott, executive director at the nonprofit food organization. "It's taking them a year to find a job and, when they do, the job salary is not on par [with their previous position]."

Food Banks' Changing Clientele

To meet the need of the growing clientele fundraisers and food drives are organized by food banks and pantries and the nonprofits rely on local growers who donate surplus produce. "More people are becoming bargain shoppers than before, so more people are shopping at Big Lots and etc. and they're becoming our competitors," says Helen McGovern, executive director of the Emergency Food Network, which created a campaign to raise a million pounds of food for its network of 67 food pantries and shelters. "We're getting less donated food but we're purchasing more staple foods like rice, cans and frozen produce."

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. The non-profit organization that works with approximately 1,000 pantries and soup kitchen says 91% have seen an increase and a roughly equal amount have seen a rise in first time clients.

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