Food Drive

Can Knoxville's anti-hunger forces cope with rising need?

Knoxvillians love food. From our football season tailgates, groaning under the weight of homemade fried chicken and barbecue, to our late night visits to the Old City for cappuccino and cheesecake, many Knoxville residents choose to mark all the important moments of life with a good meal. In the past, urban legend had it that Knoxville was home to more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States. While this is probably not true, there's no denying our love affair with eating. However, for more members of the Knoxville community than one would perhaps like to imagine, food is neither a reason to celebrate nor a source of pleasure. Instead, it is a struggle, a daily contest between an empty belly and an empty wallet.

A visit to a local grocery store with Linda, a 46-year-old Food Stamp recipient and mother of two, illustrates the face of hunger in Knoxville, circa 1996. Linda, with her petite frame and brunette bob, looks like any other working mother, patrolling the aisles for a double coupon special on her family's favorite treats. Actually, she is earnestly attempting to stay within her food budget of under $45 weekly for a family of three. Linda became a widow when her elder son was only seven. Her husband, who had been a self-employed carpenter, died of cancer, leaving the family with no means of support.

Since then, Linda, who attended the University of Tennessee for one year before her marriage, has worked part-time at a variety of retail and secretarial jobs. She claims that going to full-time status wouldn't improve her family's financial situation because she would have to pay for after-school care for her younger son, age 13. Cracking a slightly embarrassed grin, Linda admits that she usually shops for groceries late at night, after her two teenagers are asleep, so that she won't have to produce her food stamps for payment in a checkout line full of impatient Knoxville yuppies. Today, however, she is shopping on a weekday afternoon. She carefully crosses items off her list as she fills her cart with beans, rice, and pasta.

"I am so sick of hearing these stories about being behind someone at the grocery store who was paying for sirloin steak and caviar with their food stamps," she says in frustration. "First of all, just because I don't have a lot of money doesn't mean that I shouldn't be able to fix whatever food I want for my kids. And anyway, no one in my situation can afford to buy those things. I can't even buy snacks for my boys. They really want snacks for when they get home from school, and I always have to tell them to wait for dinner. I would love to just buy them a big bag of chips and some dip."

As Linda heads out the door of the grocery store after making her purchases, she passes a collection barrel for donations to a local food bank. She drops a can of green beans into the container, noting that she herself has had to turn to emergency food banks on more than one occasion over the years.

The Appalachian region has always had a justifiable reputation for problems of intense poverty and hunger. Who can forget those famous photographs of politicians campaigning in West Virginia and Kentucky in the 1960s, only to be confronted by starving children and their hollow-eyed, desperate parents. Today, it is commonly believed that government programs such as food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), in combination with charitable giving, have successfully eliminated most hunger in Appalachia and elsewhere. In fact, Knoxville's hungry never really went away. They are still among us, silently coexisting alongside the gourmet markets and golf and country clubs. And experts say that their numbers are increasing.

Second Harvest, the area's largest resource for collection and distribution of donated food, has seen the demand for its services rise in the past decade. The agency continues to strive to meet the need. In 1982, Second Harvest distributed approximately 120,000 pounds of food in Knox County. By last year, that number had risen to over one million pounds. Elaine Machiela, executive director of Second Harvest, says that although she can't quantify the number of hungry Knoxvillians, she is confident that there are more of them all the time.

"Although we do not have a way to accurately measure the number of families in this area who are struggling to get enough to eat, it is clear to all of us who work in this field that there is a serious hunger problem in East Tennessee," says Machiela.

Gail Harris, the director of the Office of Community Services at Knoxville's Community Action Committee (CAC), agrees. Harris says that the nature of hunger in Knoxville has changed in the last generation.

"We may no longer have starving children with swollen bellies in our communities, but make no mistake about it, we do have hungry children. It's hard to define hunger in Knox County. The fact that the demand for food relief keeps going up is a clear indicator that we have a hunger problem."

Harris' office provides staff support for Emergency Food Helpers, a coalition of over 60 pantries, churches, and kitchens that provide free food to hungry Knoxvillians of almost every description. In 1995, Emergency Food Helper member groups answered 82,374 requests for food, the highest number since records were first kept in 1980. This includes Knoxville's four homeless shelters, which distribute over 23,000 meals per month, and the Love Kitchen, which provides 4,000 meals per month.

According to Machiela and Harris, being a hungry American today usually means under-nutrition or malnutrition rather than actual starvation. A family trying to stretch a food dollar, or relying on donated food, is likely to be limited in its selection of nutritious meals. Those suffering from hunger tend to choose the most filling food items, as opposed to the most healthful. This can lead to numerous medical problems, many of which are being seen at the Knox County Health Department.

Carolyn Perry-Burst, nutrition services manager for the Health Department, says that diabetes, hypertension, and, ironically, obesity, are only a few of the hunger-related illnesses that she sees in her work.

"People around here see an overweight poor person and assume that they have plenty to eat. In fact, what obesity often tells us is that this person has no choice but to eat foods the rest of us wouldn't want," suggests Perry-Burst. "Poverty severely limits not only the amount of food but the quality as well."

The federal government currently defines poverty as an income below approximately $14,000 for a family of four. According to The Tennessee Hunger Coalition's newly-released book Bread and Justice, the maximum amount for which a Tennessee family can qualify in AFDC and Food Stamps together totals less than 40 percent of what a family needs to live at the poverty level. Although the Knoxville area's unemployment rate of under 5 percent is generally lower than both the state and national averages, more than 45,000 Knox County residents, over 14 percent of the population, still live below the poverty line.

In the central sector of Knoxville, the poverty rate stands at a staggering 38.3 percent. Left uncounted are the thousands of other Knoxville families who live above the official poverty limit but who are still poor by anyone else's standards. Chronic poverty is the clearest risk factor for hunger, according to experts, leading to the inescapable conclusion that, after paying for housing, utilities, clothing, and medical care, many Knoxvillians are struggling to afford sufficient food.

"Knoxville's unemployment rate is low," agrees Bob Becker of the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network, a community labor coalition. "However, it doesn't tell the whole story. Anyone with a part-time, temporary, low wage, or no-benefits job is counted as employed for purposes of the statistics. These jobs can't begin to really support a family, and someone with a job like this is just wiped out if they have even one hospital stay. The poverty rate is probably a more accurate indicator of what is happening within our community."

Jim Wright holds forth on his view of the economic inequities leading to hunger as he pilots his battered minivan to the next Hospitality Food Pantry on his daily route.

"Hunger is a simple matter of economic justice. We just don't have enough jobs here in Knoxville that will support a family. I believe that food is a right that everyone should have. No one in this country should have to go to a food pantry and beg for food."

Wright, middle-aged and mild-mannered, looks like a salesman or small business owner, which is exactly what he was before he gave it all up to become a fierce advocate for Knoxville's hungry citizens. Today, working through the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Northshore Drive, Wright directs the four locations of Hospitality Emergency Food Pantries. These Pantries distribute food packages to over 5,000 Knoxville families each month. The Hospitality Pantries are somewhat different in philosophy from Knoxville's other primary emergency food source, FISH Emergency Food Pantries. For one thing, any hungry person can use a Hospitality Pantry as often as he or she needs it, no questions asked.

"We don't try to decide for the poor when they are hungry," says Wright.

This is in contrast to some of the other food pantries in Knox County, many run by churches, which have stricter guidelines about who can receive the free bags of food and how often. Harris notes that Wright's method of providing relief has been controversial with the rest of the Knoxville hunger relief community.

"There has been some conflict between the Hospitality Pantries' approach and those who believe we should act as a better steward of scarce resources. However, there is room in this work for all types of viewpoints. We shouldn't allow this to be a polarizing conflict," says Harris firmly.

Wright explains that his views about hunger relief were crystallized when he first began working with Knoxville hunger assistance programs and discovered that some maintained an alert list of needy people who were blackballed from obtaining food.

"If a poor person had beer cans in their yard or simply asked once too often for food, they might be turned away."

According to Wright and others, these discriminatory practices have generally been eliminated from Knoxville's emergency food pantries. However, some of the underlying attitudes regarding who actually deserves to be fed remain. Those on the front lines of this area's fight against hunger are frustrated by the public's lack of understanding for the causes of hunger. The media emphasis on so-called welfare queens and Food Stamp fraud have left many in Knoxville with the belief that true hunger does not actually exist here and that those in need are just not trying hard enough.

Perry-Burst says that Knoxvillians, known for their generosity and volunteer spirit, are simply unaware of the reality of hunger.

"I have seen people who are doing everything that they can do and they are still running out of food at the end of the month," says Perry-Burst. "There are some in our community who have difficulty believing that people here are going without food because they themselves have never been hungry before."

David Duncan, local television celebrity chef and caterer to Knoxville's elite, is currently serving a term as chairman of Knoxville's Food Policy Council, a community group appointed by Mayor Victor Ashe to address community food and hunger issues. He says that he has gained a fresh understanding for the nutritional problems faced by low-income Knoxvillians through his tenure with the Council. Still, he says that he and most of his clients, while sensitive to the plight of the hungry, don't feel that their own mode of conspicuous consumption has any negative effect on the less fortunate.

"Food is my profession. I have to look at it as simply a commodity. When I do a party, the table has to look bountiful when people are paying those kinds of prices for it to look that way. I worry about the hungry, but I don't let it stop me from enjoying a $100 dinner. I don't think that other people should either."

Duncan says that he and other successful caterers attempt to recycle their leftovers from events by delivering them to shelters and other organizations serving the needy. Duncan also believes that Knoxville's food industry helps to combat hunger by providing jobs and generating economic growth.

"I see that $50 meal that one of my clients may serve to their guests as good for the local economy. The expensive meal someone eats tonight may help to put better food on someone else's table on down the line."

At the Hospitality Emergency Food Pantry, located in Knoxville's Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church, a table is laid out with a motley smorgasbord of foods from which Pantry clients may choose. There are bins of vegetables which look as if they've seen better days, slightly misshapen loaves of bread, and leftover boxed birthday cakes from a grocery store bakery. This last item catches the eye of a 4-year-old boy as he drags his mother, who has come for a bag of food, toward the table.

"Look Mama," he squeals happily. "There's that cake I done baked for you and Daddy!"

She smiles at his delight and lets him add the cake to their own brown paper bag. Then, after picking out a few more items, she leads him out the door, mumbling a shy thank you to those outside. A truck full of donated food is being unloaded on the front steps by an assortment of volunteers, young and old, male and female, well-dressed, and obviously homeless. On this day, the steady stream of people entering the Pantry to sign up for a small bag of free groceries reflects the diversity and depth of Knoxville's hunger problem.

Gary and Mick, grimy and tattered friends who live together at a permanent campsite down by the river, come to this food pantry frequently to pick up a bag of whatever items are available. Today they are happy with the bread and cookies they see on the table. The men, both in their late thirties, say that they refuse to take government assistance or go to one of the homeless shelters.

"I'm not going to go on the government dole when I know I can work," says Gary emphatically. "I want to get a job in construction, but I don't have a car or money for the bus, so I can't get to the job sites."

Mick, slurring his words, echoes his companion's sentiments.

"I hate them homeless shelters. Even when I'm really hungry, I ain't goin' there. We get by fine with what food we find and some fishin' and what we get here. I worry more about some of them little kids that's camping out with their parents around town."

Volunteers at the Magnolia Avenue Hospitality Pantry say that many homeless Knoxvillians utilize their services. A number of these guests are intoxicated when they arrive at the Pantry. Still, the hunger activists try not to judge.

"People shouldn't try to tell someone they aren't hungry just because they're drunk," says one.

Amber, another visitor to the Pantry, is a 20-year-old woman in a UT sweatshirt with long blonde hair. She approaches the table and begins gingerly adding food to her own grocery sack. Except for her obviously pregnant form, Amber looks like somebody's Tri Delta sorority sister. In fact, she is a nursing student at Pellissippi State with a 2-year-old, a baby due in three days, and an empty cupboard at her apartment. This is her first visit to an emergency food pantry. She says that the decision to come here was not an easy one.

"I waited until I absolutely had to come," she says. "I fed my son some bread and peanut butter for his supper last night. We were both really hungry this morning and I knew I had to get some food somewhere. I told him that I needed to go to the grocery store and left him with my neighbor. I told my neighbor that I was going to Kroger."

Amber says that before she became too pregnant to maneuver between the tables, she was a waitress at a popular West Knoxville restaurant. The $800 per month that she earned at her job, plus the $120 monthly she received in food stamps, allowed her to just get by. Now, without her income from her job, she and her toddler are living on the same amount in food stamps, plus the $95 monthly she receives as her AFDC welfare check.

"I don't even have money for gas in my car, so I haven't driven anywhere in weeks. I used to think that people on welfare and Food Stamps were getting away with murder, just sitting around collecting money. Now I wonder how some people with bigger families survive. As it is, I am trying to eat less so my son can have more."

Betsy Haughton, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee and longtime member of the Knoxville Food Policy Council, explains that food is often the first place a family will cut back to try to make it to the next paycheck.

"The landlord will expect the rent, so people will try to get by with less food. Parents will skip meals so that their children can eat. Eventually, many hungry families have to cut back on the children's meals as well," says Haughton.

The amount that Amber receives in food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children is determined by the state's calculation of need based on income, family configuration, and family size. Many of the working poor don't qualify for any government assistance. The state's new Families First welfare reform mandate will further restrict who is eligible to receive benefits and for how long. For those who are impoverished enough to receive them, food stamp benefits in Tennessee currently average out to $.77 per person, per meal.

Wright says that he recently attempted to eat on this amount for one month. He points out that, unlike many families with no personal transportation, he was able to use his own car to shop around for the best deals on food. Despite this advantage, trying to feed himself on under $3 a day proved nearly impossible.

Many Knox County families who are struggling to feed their children rely on the school system for help. The amount a family pays for school-based meals is determined with a sliding fee scale, and children whose family incomes qualify receive a hot, nutritious breakfast and lunch each schoolday for free or at a reduced price. Phil Clear, director of food services for Knox County schools says that the demand for school-based food assistance is sharply up this year. Currently, approximately one-third of Knox County public school students eat their daily meals through the program. The percentage of each student body receiving meal assistance varies widely from school to school, with approximately 95 percent qualifying for meals at Vine Middle School and only about 30 percent qualifying at Holston Middle school.

"We have received 1,500 to 2,000 more applications for the program this year than last year. We have more applications in 1996 than in the last six or seven years," says Clear. "None of us can figure out why we have had this kind of increase."

The largest participation day for free and reduced-price school meals in Knox County is on Mondays, when Clear says many children may be returning to class after a hungry weekend at home. Knox County Schools also contract their services to local Boys' and Girls' Clubs for preparation of free evening meals.

"This means that we have many children who are eating with us three meals a day, five days a week," Clear points out.

A logical question to ask is what these children are eating when school is not in session. According to Perry-Burst, many of them are probably not getting enough to eat during the summer months or during the holidays. Knox County offers a federally funded summer feeding program in which eligible children can enroll to receive nutritious meals at community centers. However, compared to the 16,000 children who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, only 3,000 enjoyed meals last summer. Perry-Burst points to funding deficiencies, transportation issues, and a lack of knowledge concerning the availability of the program as reasons for the non-participation of Knox County's other 13,000 eligible children.

"Children who do not receive enough nutrients are affected for the rest of their lives," says Wright. "Their emotional and physical growth are compromised, and the scars never leave them."

Knoxville's elderly and homebound residents are another population at risk for malnutrition and hunger. The Senior Nutrition Program includes serving 250 meals per day at various locations within the community and the delivery of 520 Mobile Meals or "Meals on Wheels" each weekday to hungry, homebound senior citizens. Some 240 elderly Knoxvillians are now on a waiting list to receive Mobile Meals. Although the $4 per day it costs to prepare and deliver meals to each Mobile Meals participant is a relative bargain, and Meals on Wheels recipients themselves bear a portion of the cost, the federal, local, and private funds used to bankroll the program won't stretch any farther.

"We really need to make elimination of the waiting list for Mobile Meals a community goal. This is one population of malnourished Knoxvillians who we can really put our fingers on and help," says Perry-Burst. "Our Mobile Meals elderly citizens are some of the most needy and under-nourished people in our community."

As the winter holidays approach, the startling contrasts between the two communities within our own seem to become more visible. On a clear and cold East Tennessee evening, a glittering society gala lights up the night while nearby, a homeless shelter fills to capacity with citizens seeking a warm meal and an escape from the chill. In one neighborhood, a young mother serves a filling meal to her family in the warmth of their brand new Southern Living-styled home, while across town, another explains to her children that there isn't enough food in the house for an after school snack. The dilemma is clear. Unfortunately, the solutions are not.

The kind and unselfish spirit of giving for which Knoxville is celebrated plays an important role in battling hunger. There are scores of local organizations which can benefit from a gift of time, food, or money as they work to feed Knoxville's hungry. According to hunger activists, however, as crucial as charitable giving is, it really only provides a band-aid approach to the larger problems causing hunger in the first place.

"The poor have no one in government representing their interests," theorizes Wright. "Until they do, I am afraid that change will come slowly."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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