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General News    H4'ed 12/22/10

The Hunger Game

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The good news is there's no reason anyone should ever starve to death in America.   The bad news is more and more working Americans, many earning what were once middle class incomes, are spending their time and scarce money to find their next meal.  

Think it can't happen to you?   The necessity of food will be the last thing you'll spend your limited funds on as wage stagnation, the cost of energy, housing and other mandatory expenses drive middle class family budgets to the breaking point.

Browns Mills, NJ Food Line
Browns Mills, NJ Food Line
(Image by Chaz Valenza)
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Emergency Food: More and More It's What's for Dinner

Val Traore, the radiant and gregarious CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey (FBSJ), wanted to make one thing perfectly clear in our discussion of hunger in America today.   "We do not have starvation here in the United States.   In Mali," she says, referring to the West African country where about half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, "if you live in poverty you risk starvation and death.   That doesn't happen here in America."   It's an important point worth dwelling on.  

So what is happening here?

"We're seeing a large number of families that have never needed food assistance before," reports Traore.   How many?   So far, for 2010 FBSJ has witnessed a 10% increase in their client base of approximately 100,000 people.   Here's the surprise:   a large portion of the people needing food assistance today are working, and especially among FBSJ's new clients, many are earning incomes nearly twice the poverty line of $22,055 per year for a family of four (up to 185% of poverty).

Who are the hungry and why can't they afford to feed themselves and their families?   Increasingly, the shocking answer is this:   If you are not financially independent, the odds are good that someday you could be waiting in line to feed yourself and your family.  

Food Lines: The Growing Reality Based Social Network

December 18, 2010 - Burlington County, NJ:   Especially since the airing of television shows like "The Sopranos" and   "Jersey Shore" most of the nation probably sees New Jersey as some cultural aberration.   Perhaps it is.   But, this is south Jersey and the landscape looks a lot like other semi-rural areas of the country.  

On the drive from Philadelphia through Burlington County, a main highway cuts through farmland that includes several agricultural supply and farm equipment dealers. There are also strip malls, fast food franchises and diners offering breakfast for $2.99 and prime rib dinner specials as low as $10.99.   If you were somehow transported here and I told you that you were in Ohio, you would have no reason not to believe me.

In Browns Mills, population 11,257, a tractor trailer painted as the "Hope Mobile" carrying about 28,000 pounds of food is being unloaded at the local United Methodist Church.   People are lined up outside, but most of the line has been moved inside on this frigid morning.   The church pastor has allowed the use of the facility's assembly room and adjacent corridor to bring members of some 600 pre-qualified, pre-registered families in from the cold.

Depression soup lines have nothing on this sucker.   The first in line sit along the hundred foot length of the assembly room where a beautifully lighted Christmas tree glows.   The line extends out the door and down one side of a hundred foot corridor and then loops back on itself down the opposite wall.   At the end of the line, another 30 feet or so, people will brave the weather for an hour or two until things get moving.   Over 20,000 pounds of food will be provided to the crowd here, the remaining 7,000 pounds will go to a second event later in the day in Camden, NJ.

The Browns Mills' Hope Mobile drop has been occurring monthly since August in an effort to relieve demand on overwhelmed local pantries.   Some 450,000 people live here in Burlington County where the median household income here is just under $77,000 per year.   The county is 77% white, 17% black and 6% Hispanic.

Many of the people here (according to national averages about 70%) are just plain poor.   Some are on Social Security Disability.   Others are senior citizens living on small fixed incomes.   Some of them care for grandchildren that their own children, for whatever reason, can not care for.    

A few are homeless, or the formerly homeless who have recently found a place live.   They are white, they are black and they are Hispanic.   All represented in good numbers.   They are a typical gathering of Americans in winter wear, with kids in tow and babies in strollers.   If I put them all in a local shopping mall - even the ones that told me they were homeless - you would have no reason to believe they weren't holiday shopping.

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Chaz Valenza is writer and small business owner in New Jersey. He earned his MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business. His current feature film project is "Single Point Failure" an insider's account of how the Reagan Administration (more...)
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