Gertrude Winter, a char lady in her sixties who works at a government office, will have a turkey after all this Thanksgiving. At one stage yesterday, it seemed a close run thing. As she sat in the hallway of the Bread for the City charity a rumour swept the place that they were out of turkeys.
Agitated, another woman said: “The lady says there are no turkeys left, what are we going to do?” In fact the turkeys were already on their way from another warehouse and what might have degenerated into a mini-riot, reverted instead to the good-natured banter of strangers.
Thrown together by poverty and the pinched generosity of the United States, they waited to be interviewed to see if they were eligible for a free turkey and a bag of groceries. Mobile soup kitchens are keeping the homeless on the streets fed, but it is the working poor and those with young and old dependants who patiently line up at Bread for the City. Even with the help of government food stamps, most earn less than $7,000 (£3,400) a year, not nearly enough to survive on. They have long overcome the shame of queuing up every week in public for free food
“I used to come here all the time when my kids were growing up,” said Ms Winter, “and now I’m back because everything is so expensive out there”.
Today as millions of Americans sit down to their turkey dinners with all the trimmings, the safety net of hundreds of food banks and pantries that put food on the table of the nation’s poor is creaking and torn as a result of sharply reduced donations. From New England to California warehouses that should be groaning with surplus foodstuffs are going half empty.
“We’re bracing ourselves for a very tough winter, especially with home heating fuel prices at record highs in the north-east,” said Mark Quandt of the regional food bank in New York. “People living in poverty or near poverty just can’t sustain those types of increases.”
America’s obsession with energy independence from Middle East oil may be to blame. The country’s farmers have brought in the greatest corn harvest since the Second World War, but their surpluses which once were bought by the government and sent to food banks are no longer available. Instead the corn is turned into heavily subsidised ethanol and less land is available to grow food.
And the corn syrup that turns up in almost every product found on a US supermarket shelf is in short supply. A cheap dollar means that food exports are booming and a crippling two-year drought in the south has left fruit and vegetables withered and useless.
Unnoticed by most Americans, as they drop off their old canned goods and surplus food at schools and church halls for the Thanksgiving food drives, the entire system may be heading for collapse.
A visit to three of Washington’s largest charities - a shelter for 300 men, a community kitchen that feeds 4,000 every day and a food bank that supplies the basic needs of 108,000 people a year - revealed sharply reduced donations and a sense of desperation for the future. In the gleaming workspaces of DC Central Kitchen, half a mile from the White House, fresh vegetables were being chopped by volunteers from Georgetown University Law School. DC Central’s culinary institute turns homeless drug addicts into professional chefs and provides hot meals for thousands of homeless people in shelters all over the city. Mike Curtain, its executive director, could pass muster as a US version of Jamie Oliver. “I don’t think as a nation we are who we think we are,” he says. “When I see the money wasted overseas in Iraq and knowing what it could do here, it makes me sick. I think Bush is a criminal for what he is doing.
“People in the world hate us, and rightly so, because of the way we treat our own people,” he continued, “poverty would soon disappear if we invested some of that money on a living wage, healthcare and education. ”
For now he is looking to the future by diversifying the DC Kitchen’s food sources away from hotels and restaurants by negotiating directly with farmers. “I know donors that look at us as a way to keep their trash hauling costs down,” he said. “Of the 80 trays of food we received from the company, 60 went into the dumpster.”
In the south-east of the city, where the murder rate is rising and substance abuse seems uncontrollable, Jarval Green runs a homeless shelter for 300 people that focuses on addicts. It is funded by a Catholic charity and the numbers seeking emergency shelter keep growing.
“Now we are seeing veterans from the war showing up,” he said, ” the real problem here is poverty especially among men who are substance abusers.”
Part of the reason food banks are running low on supplies is the absence of direct government spending. There is a political culture in the America that abhors spending taxpayers’ money on the poor, even as the amount president Bush is spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approaches a trillion dollars.
Many Americans are hurting because of the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market, but the country has never been wealthier. There has been an explosion in the number of millionaire American households in recent years. Those earning $1m, $10m, $100m have more than doubled over the past decade and the wealthy of America are wealthier than most countries, with the top one per cent controlling $17trn.