‘Hunger doesn’t take a vacation’

DOVER — Holidays, with their focus on food traditions and large meals, spur many Delawareans to drop a can or two into a food-drive collection box.
Food Bank of Delaware voluneer coordinator Lyndsay Humpries of Georgetown moves a pallete of food boxes through the food pantry at the Milford Branch.

Food Bank of Delaware voluneer coordinator Lyndsay Humpries of Georgetown moves a pallete of food boxes through the food pantry at the Milford Branch.

But for 16 of every 100 Delawareans, the need doesn’t end once the Christmas dishes are washed and packed away until next year.

The need for food continues through the cold months of January and February and the hot months of July and August.

“Hunger doesn’t take a vacation,” says Chad Robinson, director of the Milford Branch for the Food Bank of Delaware.

He should know.

Last year the Food Bank distributed 1.28 million pounds of food to Kent County shelters, soup kitchens and food closets and another 1.21 million pounds in Sussex County. Those food pantries often help people stretch what government assistance they may receive.

More than 16 percent of Delawareans — about 150,000 people — receive food assistance through the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Delaware Division of Social Services serves as the gateway for people needing SNAP.

Those eligible receive a card, loaded with electronic funds they can use to buy food from retailers that accept the cards. Eligibility is based on monthly household income.

In simplest terms, a person who takes home less than $973 (after taxes and other deductions) a month is eligible. The more members in the family the more take-home pay is allowed, up to $339 per additional person in the family.

Volunteers load up a Food Bank of Delaware truck.

Volunteers load up a Food Bank of Delaware truck.

The amount allowed begins at $122 to $130 for an individual and increases with family size. In Delaware, it averages to $257 to $274 per household.

Food purchases allowed are fruits, vegetables, bread, cereal, dairy products, meats, fish, poultry and those plants and seeds consumed by humans, or in other words, mostly anything people eat, including what critics call “junk food.”

What’s not allowed? Wine, beer, liquor, tobacco products and non-food items like soap, paper products, household supplies and pet foods.

While the program offers guidelines on what can be purchased, it’s up to the recipients to budget their monthly allowance, said Elaine Archangelo, director of the Division of Social Services.

“If anyone runs out of SNAP money before their month runs out, we refer them to the Food Bank or food pantries to make it through the rest of their month,” she said.

And many likely will find themselves relying on those food pantries to make up the difference.

Cost of living

Consider that a can of soup costs almost $2 a can, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. A gallon of milk is around $3.80 and a couple of pounds of ground beef more than $8. All that,
plus other staples like bread, cereal and peanut butter, means that it doesn’t take long for that monthly allotment of maybe $122 to be gone.

That’s backed up by statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers there developed an online tool that calculates the cost of living in states. It has determined that the average single-adult household in Delaware spends $242 per month on food.

It also breaks down other expenses: like $753 for housing and $318 for transportation. MIT concludes a person in Delaware needs an annual salary of $21,666 before taxes (about $1,805 monthly) to make ends meet, assuming no other income.

Add two children to a one-adult family, and $536 is spent on food monthly, with an average annual salary of $53,371 needed, according to MIT.

Housing comes into play as well. NCALL, a Dover-based group that provides assistance to homeowners, says no more than 30 percent of one’s income should go to housing. Following that rule, an adult living alone would need to earn to $30,120, and a two-adult, two-child household would need a total salary of $39,560.

Those working full time on a minimum wage of $7.75 per hour ($15,080 annual) fall short of what MIT says is the $21,666 livable income in Delaware.

About 11,000 workers in Delaware made minimum wage in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

And then there are those trying to live solely on Social Security benefits. About 64.1 million people in the United States received Social Security income in November, according to the Social Security Administration.

Cans line the shelves at the Food Bank of Delaware Milford Branch.

Cans line the shelves at the Food Bank of Delaware Milford Branch.

The average earned about $1,194 last month. Over one year, that comes to $14,328 — well below the total required for one adult to support him- or herself, assuming he or she has no other form of income.

Finding help

All those figures explain why the Food Bank of Delaware distributed more than a million pounds of food in Kent County alone last year. The Food Bank serves as a warehouse for food collected in drives and through private donations.

It then redistributes the food to pantries. Clients at the pantries, many connected to churches, are steered there by the Department of Health and Social Services’ state service centers.

Janet Burke, administrator at the Williams State Service Center in Dover, says the largest demand by people seeking state help is for food.

It has an emergency food pantry for overnight and weekend distribution. It also distributes vouchers for weekday pickups at the church pantries.

More than 1,000 emergency food requests are made at the Williams Center annually, Ms. Burke said, and the trend has increased slightly since 2012.
Churches that run pantries echo her statement that the need has increased, including First Baptist Church on Walker Road in Dover. It helped more than 803 people in 2013.

“I’m not sure the economy has come back quite as much as some say it has,” says Willie Case, food pantry coordinator. “We still see a lot of people who are challenged by the times we are living in at the moment.”

For many, the faith community is bridging the gap between government assistance and surviving. But Herb Konowitz, vice chairman of the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing, says feeding those in need is just one answer. The ongoing concern is to help people regain overall stability.

School and seniors

Statistically, the young and the old are most at risk of needing help. The USDA reports the households most likely to receive SNAP benefits are those with only one adult with one or more children.

Although needy families may not think about schools as a place to find relief, school staff are often the first to learn about hunger at home, according to Lake Forest teacher Karen Williams, who runs the school’s food pantry.

So schools are taking a proactive approach to fighting hunger.

Initiatives include the Backpack Program, which provides food to children in need when school is not in session, and breakfast and lunch programs.

Statewide, almost 5,000 children participate in the Backpack Program. As for senior citizens, help often comes to their homes, via Meals on Wheels, an initiative that delivers low-cost meals.

For many, it might be their only hot meal of the day.

Staff writers Craig Anderson, Matt Bittle, Arshon Howard and Eleanor La Prade contributed to this article.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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