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Hunger hits home

Gas is up, income is down. How do Missoula’s poor keep themselves fed?

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I don’t know what to expect as I approach the door of Tammy Clark’s home north of Bonner, camera and notebook in hand. Like most people, I’d never knowingly been invited to a dinner paid for with food stamps. A week earlier, I’d been unable to think of any better way to try to understand what it must be like for a single mother of seven to feed her children every night than to join her family for supper. Standing at the front door, I am uncomfortable with the idea of eating her family’s food.

When I mentioned to Tammy that I wanted to drop by and observe her family during dinner some night, she enthusiastically invited me to the table for the meal. When I said I intended to pass on the meal and simply observe, Tammy wouldn’t stand for it.

“Not a chance. You have to join us so you can get the full experience,” she said with a bright, sincere smile.

Four of Tammy’s children still live at home. McKenzie, her 13-year-old son, greets me at the door. Knees dirty from a flag football game and still sporting an oversized white jersey, McKenzie extends his hand and I shake it. Then he invites me in.

“What are you going to write about?” McKenzie asks.

“I’m not sure yet,” I say honestly.

As I step into the house I am immediately accosted by the Clarks’ huge Akita, Dobby, named for the protective “house elf” from the Harry Potter books. The curly-tailed dog keeps ramming its large, fuzzy head against my hand, letting me know it wants to be petted.

Tammy explains that she got the dog because Akitas are extremely loyal and protective, and since it’s just her and the kids living in the country, she feels safer with Dobby around.

Mariah, the youngest of Tammy’s seven children at 11, is sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar with her legs crossed like a pretzel. Bill, a small black female cat, is curled in her lap. Another cat watches from under the kitchen table. Almost as quiet as the cat is John, Tammy’s fourth-oldest at 15, wearing a black cowboy hat that makes him look like a miniature Tim McGraw. He watches me warily from across the room and says little. John doesn’t appear to be excited about my visit, but he shakes my hand when I offer it, and indulges me in a bit of small talk about elk hunting. It is a roast from a cow he shot last season we are going to eat for dinner that night, but John has no interest in sitting around his family’s table with me. He wants to go to the Hellgate High School homecoming bonfire, and is eager to disappear the moment I tell Tammy I don’t mind.

Mariah is eager to show me her room and the new litter of baby kittens.

I wonder what Tammy had told her children about my visit. I’m not sure what they think I’m doing at their house. I wonder if they understand their family’s financial situation, and the fact that I intend to write about it. I wonder if they know their mother has to get in line each month at the Office of Public Assistance to fill out paperwork and meet with caseworkers in order to get the roughly $1,100 per month they all live on. I wonder if they know that their mom’s only personal indulgence is the occasional $1 she spends on a cup of Americano (she brings her own mug to save 50 cents) at the Le Petit Outre bakery.

If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that poverty is a serious problem in the United States. Those without gassed-up cars and SUVs in their driveway didn’t have the means to get out of the doomed city of New Orleans before disaster struck. As one radio talk show host put it: “It’s not like they could hail a cab to take them out of town.” As the storm’s devastation unfolded on millions of televisions across the country, the nation got a front row seat as the curtain was pulled back on the reality of poverty in America.

“[Katrina] has exposed that there is a whole segment of society that is barely getting by. They don’t have any of the resources or wherewithal to react to a disaster,” says Al Brislain, senior vice president of member services for America’s Second Harvest, the national food bank network. “I think it was a wake-up call to a lot of people that our country has problems that it needs to be looking at.”

Poverty rates across the country have steadily increased since 2000, after nearly a decade of decline. Meanwhile, energy costs are on the rise. Low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for gasoline to fuel their cars and energy to heat their homes. The federal Energy Information Administration is projecting major increases in energy costs in the wake of Katrina. Preliminary estimates of heating-oil price increases range from 29 percent to 33 percent over the 2004-2005 winter. Depending on the region of the country, increases for 2005 natural gas prices are expected to range between 37 percent and 50 percent above 2004 averages.

Those numbers don’t bode well for the estimated 37.5 million Americans living in poverty.

According to 2005 guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of four making $19,350 or less is living in poverty. In 2004, 12.7 percent of Americans were living in poverty, up from 11.3 percent in 2000.

Based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the poverty rate in Montana rose to 14.2 percent in 2003, an increase of 7.6 percent since 2000. According to the Missoula City-County Health Department, current estimates indicate that almost 16 percent of Missoula County residents live below the poverty line, compared to about 11 percent in 1970. Poverty continues to rise across the state even as unemployment rates stay low. Montana has the fourth-highest incidence of citizens holding two jobs, yet the state ranks 50th in the nation for median family income. According to a survey released this month by the Food Policy Council, titled “Hungry in Montana: Factors Contributing to Emergency Food Needs,” increased housing, utility, medical and transportation costs are leaving little room for food in many families’ budgets. As a result, many of those families are relying on the state’s food pantries to make up for what their wages don’t cover. The report indicates that 48 percent of clients surveyed at seven Montana food pantries are maximizing their food resources by participating in the federal food stamp program and using local food pantries. The picture is even grimmer for those Montanans who can’t get a job, or are working part-time for minimum wage.

According to Peggy Grimes, executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network, neither food stamps nor emergency food programs are designed to meet the entire food needs of a family, yet that’s the only way many families are able to make do.

“The situation is that people are going without food more often and coming to visit local food pantries more often,” says Grimes. “They are scrimping on every other aspect of life: transportation, housing costs, utilities. What’s happening is many people are using their local food pantry as their local grocery store. For some people it’s their only source of food. Others are using it to round out their food stamps.”

Joseph Bischof, executive director of Missoula’s Poverello Center, says he’s seen a 150 percent increase in the number of visits to the center’s food pantry over the past year and a half, even as the number of meals served in the soup kitchen remain stable.

“We’ve seen tremendous exponential growth in our food pantry,” says Bischof. “More and more families need to stretch their dollars. If they can come in and get a couple of day’s worth of groceries each month, it helps.”

Grimes says she’s receiving an increasing number of calls from local emergency food programs asking for more food. The Food Bank Network, based in Missoula, has been forced to lease additional warehouse space and has recently purchased two new 53-foot trailers to house and transport more food.

“If you really look at [the survey], what it shows is that more people are working more jobs but working in low-wage jobs where they don’t earn enough to support what their outflow is,” she says.

If you’ve seen Tammy Clark pushing two loaded grocery carts through the aisles of the Wal-Mart Superstore, you probably wouldn’t guess she uses food stamps to pay for their contents. A slight woman with long, curly blonde hair, Tammy doesn’t look her 43 years of age, but appearances can be deceiving.

“I think you’d be surprised at the clients that walk through our doors,” says Aaron Brock, outreach coordinator for Missoula Food Bank. “In 2004, we served 11,918 distinct individuals. Ninety-five percent of those were from Missoula County. That’s one in every nine people in Missoula that walked through these doors at least once last year.”

Brock said I’d be hard-pressed to walk down the street and discern who has and hasn’t been to the food bank.

“Many of these people are heroes,” says Brislain. “There are single moms with two kids who are working two part-time jobs and are still below the poverty line. Yet they are still there, getting by. They are working hard—in many cases harder than the people who are judging them.”

Missoula Food Bank saw 34,270 visits in 2004, by 11,918 distinct individuals. The food bank served an additional 4,556 nutritious meals to needy children during the summer months in the absence of school lunch programs through the Kids Café program.

Three years ago Tammy Clark never imagined she’d be forced to rely on government assistance to feed her family.

“I was married for 22 years. It’s not like I just decided to have seven kids and try to live off the system,” she says.

After divorcing her husband, it took Tammy nearly three months before she could bring herself to begin looking for help. Her small coffee cart business wasn’t earning enough money to pay all her bills with enough left to feed her family. Yet she was too proud, and more than a little embarrassed, to walk into the Office of Public Assistance. Finally, at the urging of friends, Tammy swallowed her pride and asked for help.

“I didn’t want people to look down on me,” Tammy says. “I don’t want my kids to be ashamed of me because I have to use food stamps. I think my kids know that I’m trying to do better…for me and for them.”

Tammy says it’s difficult for her to stand in line at the grocery store and hand the clerk the government-issued Montana Access Card. In 2002 the state replaced traditional paper food stamps with the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) System. Today participants are issued a debit card they use for purchasing food products. Food stamp benefits are electronically transferred to an account linked to the participant’s Montana Access Card. Tammy uses her card to purchase food just like she would with any credit or bank debit card.

Although the days of digging though a wallet or purse to pull out the old food stamps are over, Tammy says she still doesn’t like other customers knowing that she’s paying with government assistance money.

“I don’t go to certain grocery stores because the clerk takes your card to scan it,” she says. “At Wal-Mart and Albertsons I can swipe the card myself and enter a pin number and people think I’m paying with a credit card. People think less of you. They do. But they don’t walk in my shoes. They don’t know what I do. There are a lot of narrow-minded people.”

Tammy doesn’t know how much food stamp money she’ll have for groceries until the first of each month. Lately, she says, it’s been around $550. Then she gets about another $500 to use on non-food items like cleaning supplies, clothes and school supplies for her kids.

The money doesn’t come without obligation, however. Tammy is required to do about 30 hours of volunteering and job training each week in order to qualify for the assistance. If she misses an appointment or fails to show up for a volunteering job without a doctor’s excuse, she’s docked $75 dollars. If she falters twice, she can be cut from the program, she says.

“I’m not just getting free money. I’m working my ass off for it. I’m on the go all the time.”

In addition to shuttling kids to football games and volunteering nearly every day at the Montana Food Bank Network entering data, Tammy is also trying to enroll in classes at the Dickinson Lifelong Learning Center so she can develop the skills Missoula employers are looking for. The day after my visit, Tammy is scheduled for a second job interview for a job at a Mountain Home Montana coffee cart. She’s also applied for a permanent job at the Montana Food Bank Network, which she hopes to get.

“I want to help people,” she says. Then, laughing, she adds: “I’m an enabler!”

According to the state Department of Public Heath and Human Services, 8,601 Missoula County residents receive food stamps. Because she has four kids at home, Tammy qualifies for more assistance than many in Missoula.

On a recent Thursday at Missoula Food Bank, a 27-year-old man named Jason sits patiently in the waiting area for the third time in two months. He has already filled out the necessary “client survey” form that food bank personnel use to keep track of client statistics. His long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, Jason explains that he hasn’t been able to find a decent-paying job for years. He has lived in Missoula off and on for the last 15 years, but without a high school diploma (he dropped out of school in Great Falls only three credits shy of graduating), and without a car, he struggles to find work that can support him. His last job paid $5.15 an hour for 20 hours a week. He was netting less than $400 a month.

“First of all, with the college kids back in town, jobs aren’t easy to find,” Jason says. “Right now things are about as bad as they’ve ever been for me.”

Jason is soft-spoken, friendly and articulate. He says he’s living with a friend about three blocks east of the food bank, and he spends most of his days looking for a job. He’s able to get day labor jobs from time to time, and once in a while one of his friends finds him work for a day or two, but he’s not pulling in a regular income. He’s in the process of applying for food stamps, but because he doesn’t have a family, a home, a car, or utility payments, he says he would likely only qualify for about $140 a month. Last month he needed to make two emergency visits to the food bank.

“I don’t like the whole idea of having to come to the food bank, but I suck it up,” he says. “It only helps out for a couple of days.”

After several minutes of waiting, a volunteer calls Jason’s name and he walks back to a set of privacy booths where he hands the interviewer his driver’s license. He knows the routine all too well.

The volunteer makes sure he’s filled out all of the required information, such as the names and ages of all the people in his family: “0”; current housing situation: “staying with friends”; total dollar amount he receives monthly: “N/A”.

The volunteer hands him a sheet directing him toward other local forms of assistance, but Jason says he has that sheet at home. He knows where to find help when he needs it. All he needs this morning is some food to get him through the week.

“It’s pretty much impossible to go hungry in this town,” Jason explains. “The jobs are hard to come by, and they are low-paying, and rent is expensive, but people in Missoula are pretty good about helping people out when they need food.”

Missoula Food Bank limits clients to one visit per month, but in emergency situations, exceptions can be made. Clients are allowed one additional visit for perishable food items.

The volunteer approves Jason’s paperwork and hands him a card explaining his food allowance. Because he’s single, without a family to provide for, he’s entitled to one bag of rice, a bag of dry beans, a bag of oatmeal, and two cans of vegetables, soups, etc. per visit. Clients like Jason are able to stock up on as much fresh fruit and vegetables as they want, and a board on the wall outlines the daily allowance of items like bread, prepared dinners, meats and sweets. It all depends on how much is available that day.

Much of the food comes from food drives and donations from area residents. Through the Food Circle program, the food bank recovers and redistributes food prepared by caterers, restaurants and grocery stores that would otherwise be thrown away. Much of the fresh produce comes from the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) Farm in the Rattlesnake and area community gardens run by Garden City Harvest. Missoula Food Bank also receives some surplus and donated food from around the state as part of the Montana Food Bank Network.

As Jason peruses the “sweets” section, he examines a box of doughnuts, considers a selection of muffins, and then opts for a chocolate cake that appears to have come from a grocery store bakery.

“You have to get here right when they open or the selection isn’t as good,” Jason says, seeming a bit sheepish about taking the cake.

As he is checking out, Jason talks about his future. Once he has enough extra money, he plans to take his General Educational Development test (GED) and apply for college. He says he would like to study social work so he can help people like himself.

But before he can think that far ahead, he has to get back to looking for a job. He says he has an appointment at a local temp agency, but without a car, his prospects of nailing down a good job aren’t promising.

Once the volunteers finish packing his bags, Jason takes them outside where he carefully arranges everything in his huge backpack. He hopes the food would get him through the weekend.

“Food security” is defined as “the ability to access food in a consistent and socially acceptable manner and the ability to meet the family’s nutritional needs,” according to the Montana Food Bank Network. A person who is food secure has the financial means to buy food, to grow food or has food resources through long-term food assistance programs and does not have to rely on emergency food. According to “Hungry in Montana,” there has been a rapid increase in the need for food assistance as poverty in the state has increased in recent years. The rate of food insecurity in Montana went from 11.2 percent in 1996-1998 to 12.8 percent in 2000-2002. The national rate for food insecurity during the same period was 10.8 percent, the report states.

According to Peggy Grimes, the main culprit is the sort of jobs available to Montanans.

“We have plenty of new business in the state, unfortunately they are low-wage, low-paying jobs,” says Grimes. “In the last five years or so, that’s the type of employment we’re getting. A lot of families are forced to work two or three low-wage jobs to make it. Ten years ago we were more stable.”

According to statistics from Missoula Food Bank, 45 percent of its clients have at least one member of the household who is employed. Of those, the average number of hours worked per week is 30, at an average hourly rate of $7.33. The average monthly income is $987, or $11,844 annually.

A startling 35 percent of the clients around the state reported no monthly income.

“There is a growing number of people and families that are in a constant state of emergency,” says Brock.

He said Missoula Food Bank is on track to serve more people in 2005 than ever before, and that’s been the trend for the last seven years.

“We’re seeing a steady increase every year in the number of people who need our services.”

Brock says that while the mission and work of food banks are important, more needs to be done.

“While the food that we provide is essential, we are all aware that we are treating a symptom, hunger, rather than the actual problem, which is poverty,” he says.

Brock is currently working on a project to help determine if and how anti-hunger agencies can better work to help their clients move toward self-sustainability.

While he says there will always be a need for food banks to provide some level of food assistance, Brock says the current trend can’t continue.

“We’re realizing that there is a greater need. We can’t just keep handing out more and more food forever.”

It’s hard for Tammy Clark to think too far into the future. With four children at home, her biggest concern is taking care of her family. But she doesn’t want to rely on food stamps and government assistance forever.

“My goal is to give my kids what they need so they don’t have to worry about things,” says Tammy.

There’s nothing she wants more than to be self-sufficient, but without the skills, training or education to land a job that pays a living wage, she knows her future is uncertain.

In the meantime, Tammy works hard to make the most of what she has. She demonstrated this on a recent trip to the grocery store. As we walk the aisles of Missoula’s Orange Street Food Farm, Tammy explains how she keeps mental notes on the prices of items she shops for each month. She knows what items cost at Food Farm, Wal-Mart and Albertsons, and often shops at all three to stretch her food stamps as far as they will go. She also tries to balance quality with price.

“I try to be a smart shopper,” she says, looking over produce. “I know the organic bananas are better, but at 79 cents a pound, I have to buy the cheaper ones.”

Tammy says she tries not to buy anything that’s not on sale, and when she finds a good deal, she’ll stock up. She hates to waste food or money, so she buys only items she knows her family will eat.

Buying meat is tricky, she says.

“Meat is so expensive. I can’t justify buying a T-bone steak. There are other things that are better, cost- and nutrition-wise.”

Tammy looks over the soup aisle, considers the Western Family-brand tomato soup, but settles on the more expensive Campbell’s because she knows from experience that the Western Family will go to waste in her household.

“It doesn’t do any good for something to sit uneaten in the pantry,” she says.

The next night, as I sit down with Tammy, McKenzie and Mariah for a meal of elk roast, potatoes, carrots, steamed broccoli, and buttered bread, I feel more like a welcomed dinner guest than a prying reporter. Table discussion ranges from Harry Potter to school activities to music. The children are excited to have a new guest at the table and compete for my attention. Mariah occasionally winks at me as she slips a piece of food to Dobby, while McKenzie recaps the story of his diving catch in the football game. Their attention is on me much of the time. They want to know what it’s like to be a reporter. McKenzie tells me that he’s working on the school newspaper this year (because he likes to ask people questions).

After dinner, Tammy and I talk for a bit while McKenzie and Mariah take turns playing CDs (McKenzie likes country while Mariah prefers hip- hop).

“Thank you for coming,” Tammy says as I prepare to leave. “We don’t get many guests out here. It was a lot of fun.”

It wasn’t until after I left that I realized what my visit must have meant to her. For Tammy, food assistance does more than just put food on the table. That evening, it gave her the opportunity to share her home and family with a guest, and she took pride in sharing her family and table with me.

“There’s a saying that goes, ‘I may be broke, but I’m not poor,’” Tammy had explained. “I may be broke right now, but I will never be poor.”

jadams@missoulanews.com

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