From Middle-Class to Food Pantry: Single Dad Sells Possessions to Feed His Family

PHOTO: Because of local food pantries, Don Orange, a 35-year-old single dad from Bonita Springs, Fla., said his two kids, Abigail, 6, and Aidon, 4, have never gone hungry.PlayABC News
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On grocery day, Don Orange gets only the food he needs to feed his two kids at the only price he can afford -- which is nothing.

Since June, Orange, who is unemployed, has been a regular at the Bonita Springs Assistance Office food pantry in Bonita Springs, Fla. He joins the swelling number of middle-class Americans who now need the most basic help to make sure they can feed their families.

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Because of local food pantries, Orange, a 35-year-old single dad, said his two kids, Abigail, 6, and Aidon, 4, have never gone hungry. But it wasn't always that way.

A few months after receiving his last unemployment check in April, Orange said his bank account was "zero" and the cupboard was almost bare.

"Enough left to feed the kids a couple of breakfasts, couple of lunches," he said.

Five years ago, Orange managed a chain of Shoe Carnival stores and lived on a street lined with big houses in Florida, where many of his neighbors owned boats. At the time, he was pulling in a salary in excess of $50,000 and had no doubt whatsoever that this is where he belonged. Until he was laid off.

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Shortly after, Orange was hired as a general manager at a wedding apparel business at Sacino's in Fort Myers. But 11 months later, the company closed most of its local stores and he was again out of a job. That was more than a year ago.

"It's pretty rough," he said. "We wonder from day to day where we're going to get money from. ... I feel lower class."

Al Brislain, who runs the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, which supplies nearly 200 food pantries in southwest Florida with basic staples -- and more recently, meat and fresh produce -- said the food bank has seen a 60 percent increase in partners signing up to get food since the recession started.

The food bank has a warehouse cooled to a chilly 38 degrees F, outfitted to store all kinds of perishable food. It has relationships with local supermarkets, which donate food they otherwise couldn't sell, such as meats close to expiration dates.

"If people don't buy it within 24 to 48 hours, they freeze it and give it to us," Brislain said. "It's unbelievable the fresh produce we get, meat, perishables. ... That's what the American consumer wants, so that's what we get donated from the food industry."

A fleet of trucks makes daily rounds to pick up the food. Other mobile pantries travel out into the rural areas of the five counties the food bank serves. One recent trip involved a 60-mile drive to a park where nearly 900 people were waiting in 95-degree heat. An assembly line of people formed to receive the 14,000 pounds of food that were given away over the next three hours, many of whom were the long-term poor.

But Brislain said he is seeing a new group of people who need the food bank's services.

"Former construction workers, former real estate people ... and people who supported those industries" he said. "We are seeing people who were donors that are having to come. We are seeing people who were volunteers at the food pantries that are having to ask for help. We are seeing people who just are -- one guy had an $80,000 job, he lost it, he got a $30,000 job, he lost that. Now he is out of work. But you just see people underwater. Just underwater."

People like Orange, who once had jobs and were doing well before but aren't now. When his family almost ran out of food in June, Orange swallowed his pride and went to a food pantry for the first time.

"It was really hard," he said. "I never had to do it. I've been very independent since I was 16 ... [but] I wasn't able to keep up to standards of everybody else."

Orange also had to explain to his two kids when they asked for something that he was out of work and times were tough.

"[I told] them that 'Dad doesn't have any money right now. When Dad gets back to work and is able to get money, I'll buy it,'" he said. "Believe it or not, my kids are 6 and 4, and they understand."

Recently, things have gotten especially bad because Orange hasn't been able to pay his utility bills -- the electricity could be cut off any day now, as well as his water. He said he got rid of all of his credit cards and his bank account and wallet are dry.

"I've got some change in the kid's piggybank," Orange said. "That's it. I've actually taken birthday money and whatever money that they had from relatives and bought stuff they needed, food and stuff, and now all that's left is just pennies."

To pay the bills, Orange has been selling his possessions -- most of his living room furniture is on Craig's List. He also got a quote from a nearby electronics store on what he could get for his flat-screen TV.

"I've got a price on that and what they want to give me for it is a little bit of nothing," he said. "But if it comes down to putting food on the table, that's what I got to do."

The food bank has been helpful to Orange and his family, because feeding his kids was costing him $150 to $200 a month. Now, if he earns any income, at least that will be money he can put toward other necessities, such as paying the electric bill to keep the air conditioner on in the still-stifling Florida heat, instead of buying food.

In the meantime, Orange has applied for food stamps and continues to look for work, but said even landing a fast-food job has been difficult.

"Before, fast food, you could walk in, if you had experience, they would hire you. Now they're turning everybody away," he said. "[I'll do] whatever it takes to keep the bills paid and a roof over my kids' head."

Somehow, Orange said, he's going to get back his place in the middle-class. For now, his kids have a hot breakfast and lunch at school as well as what he gets from the food pantry -- the safety net -- to eat. That is the only reason they are not hungry.

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