|Food insecurity, defined as eating diminished amounts of food at any particular meal or skipping complete meals due to lack of financial resources, is up nationally, statewide and in Spokane County. The trend is exacerbated by factors like the Great Recession, sluggish economic recovery and cuts to programs like TANF and SNAP (food stamps).
Unfortunately, in a developed country such as the United States, food insecurity is all too common, affecting an estimated 16.4 percent of U.S. residents in 2011 and 16.1 percent of Washington State residents, according to Community Indicators 6.14. Data for Spokane County has remained largely flat from 2009 to 2011 at around 15.3 percent, but local nonprofit workers say the need for food increased markedly in 2013.
Children are affected disproportionately - according to Feeding America, 15.9 million children under 18 were unable to consistently access nutritious food in 2012. That's more than one out of five. Populations on fixed incomes or those living on incomes of others are more vulnerable to food insecurity because they are less able to earn their own income.
Seniors are also affected disproportionately by food insecurity, according to Meals on Wheels Executive Director Pam Almeida; mostly they are included in the population living on fixed or no income.
Like many local nonprofits, Meals on Wheels has faced significant funding reductions in the past year, Almeida said, and as a result has had to make program cuts. The program is largely funded by federal money allocated by the Older Americans Act of 1965, which authorizes funding for agencies throughout the country focused on serving the elderly and associated caregivers.
About 25 percent of the program’s meals go to people under 60, a little known fact, Almeida said, and that program is no longer free because of the cuts. Meals on Wheels also recently began charging for any liquid nutrition drinks they give out.
Meals on Wheels serves a significant number of people in Spokane County.
"We’re currently doing about 20,000 meals per month," Almeida said, a number that was cut from 25,000 after budget reductions.
"Probably the most disconcerting number for me [is that] for half the people, our meal is the only meal of the day."
To make up for budget shortfalls, Almeida and Meals on Wheels officials are currently working with local aging and long-term care officials to plan a summit on senior hunger for the late spring. She hopes to bring more awareness to the community about a problem she says isn’t understood as well as it should be.
||"Their issues are different than the general population," she said. "It's a huge problem most people aren’t aware of."
For example, many seniors have mobility problems and cannot go to the food bank, she said. Another barrier for seniors is the act of asking for help. Almeida calls this the 'hidden waiting list' of people who experience financial and physical need but may not reach out for assistance because of social and cultural upbringing that makes it difficult to use a charitable service like Meals On Wheels.
Many misconceptions exist about food insecurity, according to Second Harvest CEO Jason Clark, including ones about the people who do use the food bank.
"Often, people start with the assumption that we serve primarily homeless people or mostly the unemployed. We certainly help people who are homeless or unemployed, but today serve a significant number of working, low-income families with children," he said.
Clark said food bank clients are often underemployed and earn less than the federal poverty income level. They experience an increasing level of what he calls chronic food insecurity, a trend that has grown more common in the last five years.
"Food bank lines have grown much longer and people are in a situation where they now have to come each month in order to feed themselves and their families," he said.
Increasing food insecurity has become a problem for Second Harvest officials because the model was designed to relieve occasional or emergency need, rather than long-term assistance. The community has been responsive so far.
"Our distribution of donated food has grown from 14,000,000 pounds annually in 2008 to a projected 24,000,000 pounds in 2014," Clark said.
Second Harvest supplies 272 food banks and programs in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho from distribution hubs in Spokane and Pasco. In Spokane, these neighborhood food banks are called outlets, Clark said, and they served around 18,000 people per month in 2013, up from only 14,000 in 2008.
Clark attributes the rise in food bank visits to several factors, including cuts in SNAP benefits and changes to the most recent Farm Bill, which further affects food stamp funding.
Fortunately, while food insecurity is a serious problem in Spokane, it’s not one without a solution. Both Meals on Wheels and Second Harvest accept donations of volunteer time and money, and they need them more than ever in the face of rising demand.
"I always encourage folks to consider making a financial contribution because each donated dollar provides five meals," Clark said.