Demand for help sign of economic ills

Those who run the region's food pantries are seeing more local residents than ever regularly coming in for free food. The stark conclusion drawn from this is that in a relatively wealthy region of one of the wealthiest states in the country, there is an astounding amount of need that appears to be growing.

Here is just a bit of the evidence: St. Vincent DePaul Place in Norwich now regularly distributes food to double the number of clients it had just a few years ago. The Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center launched its mobile food pantry program in May 2013 with three sites that served about 200 households, but in September, it will launch its 12th mobile pantry and expects to provide some 24,000 meals monthly throughout the region. There are now mobile pantry stops in towns such as Salem and Stonington - places where some might be surprised to discover that many neighbors struggle to provide food for their families.

While the sheer numbers increase, the profile of those who need food also broadens. Many are from families with two wage-earners. Many are single. Many are veterans. Many had their unemployment benefits run out and simply can't find a job. Many are accessing food pantries for the first time in their lives.

Some 19,000 residents live below the poverty line in the region, but many more whose incomes fall above the poverty threshold still struggle to heat and light their houses, keep cars running, pay for health care and feed and clothe their children.

The region is blessed with programs helping those who struggle and generous residents who donate money, time and food to keep these programs robust. Besides food distribution sites ranging from the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center to the Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries, there are numerous meal sites, the mobile pantries and emergency shelters. In addition, free summer food programs feed many children in towns such as Groton, New London and Norwich, enabling students to return to a new school year well-nourished, focused, energized and ready to learn.

None of this is enough. Hunger is not just about food. It's about jobs that don't exist or pay too little. It's about a lack of affordable housing. It's about health care and prescription medication costs so high that some who are ill must choose between medicine and food. It's about inadequate public transportation.

Both the state and national economy continue to add jobs. But many people work in jobs that don't pay enough to meet today's high cost of living. Middle-income families find themselves slipping toward the ranks of the poor as wage increases fail to keep up with inflation. In this coming election for state and federal offices, voters deserve a serious debate about how to get the economy moving and rebuild the middle class. Instead they are likely to get a steady diet of simplistic attack ads providing no political nourishment.

Food pantry operators say they would like nothing better than to be put out of business for lack of need and most of those who queue for food say they would prefer to earn enough to buy their own. Elected officials and community leaders must not only have serious discussions about ending hunger amid the plenty, but must also actually take steps to restore self-sufficiency to so many struggling families.

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