New clients at food banks

Not long ago, local soup kitchens, food pantries and other organizations and agencies that help the hungry predominantly assisted single-parent households and the long-term unemployed. Those who repeatedly relied on such entitlements were part of a permanent welfare class, critics sneered.

These days, as reporter Izaskun E. Larraņeta related in an article Sunday, "Making ends meet a complex pursuit for some local families," a growing number of working couples and others who suddenly find themselves without a paycheck are forced to turn to charities and social services to help put food on the table.

"What we are finding ... is that people are underemployed," said Nancy Rossi, managing executive of the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. "Folks that come to our feeding sites or food pantries are a paycheck away, a car payment away from a financial crisis. Some things we hear is that they had an unexpected bill, an unexpected illness, or cutback in hours. ... Those are the things that can upset already fragile finances. They are making decisions to either feed their families or themselves or pay a bill."

The New London-based center, one of three food banks in the state, distributes more than two million pounds of donated, surplus food to 96 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, child care centers, community meal sites, and programs for the elderly. These groups in turn provide food and meals to 20,000 men, women and children throughout New London County each month.

According to the food center, one in six children in southeastern Connecticut is "food insecure," meaning their access to food is limited or uncertain. In addition, a U.S. Census Bureau study indicates that 19,000 people in the region are living below the poverty level. Yet another report found that one in eight households in New London County cannot always afford the food they need.

These statistics are even more troubling in light of a new government study that found the gap between the haves and the have-nots is now wider than ever.

Jason Martin, social services manager at the Thames Valley Council for Community Action Inc., a regional social service agency, noted the declining economy has created greater demand for public services. Now that winter is approaching and with it, rising heating bills, food pantries can expect to be busier.

"It used to be that people would go to a food pantry in an emergency, but now they are using it as a subsidy," he said.

In this era of a fragile job market made more uncertain because of the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, groups such as TVCCA and the Gemma Moran Center must take on a heavier load.

This shifting trend underscores the need to expand support for such groups, and to adjust public attitudes toward poverty. Few people ever choose to go hungry.

Most simply need a helping hand, which society has an obligation to offer.

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