They had no turkey for Thanksgiving

When I talked to her the Monday before Thanksgiving, Carolina Morales was standing in line at the food pantry run by St. Maurice Catholic Church in Chicago’s Southwest side. She had come to pick up sacks of food that, she said, “will make it possible for us to have dinner on Thanksgiving. It won’t be turkey and fixings, but it will be a decent meal.”

Morales, like many of the 309,600 people who trudge to one of the 600 food pantries associated with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) every week, has a job. And she, like many of the working poor, must rely on charitable institutions to keep the wolf away from the door.

“In a good week I earn $240 – too much to draw food stamps and not enough to buy food, and pay for rent, lights and heat,” she said bitterly. She said she comes to the pantry twice a month. “But even so, my children have to eat a lot of beans and rice.”

Dave Brady, coordinator of the St. Maurice pantry, says it is typical of the smaller pantries in the Chicago area. “We provide food for about 100 families,” he said, adding that the number was increasing every week. He said the clientele was a “little bit” younger than in previous years.

Last year the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed more than 36 million tons of food, enough to provide nearly 75,000 meals per day, 365 days a year. The agency also distributed six million tons of fresh produce and two million tons of prepared foods from restaurants, hotels and company cafeterias, which are delivered directly to soup kitchens and shelters. On the national scene, charitable organizations provide food aid to more than 23 million people.

During an interview at the depository’s warehouse, communications director Barbara Wicker said the agency was distributing nearly a quarter of a million pounds of food every day.

“Our mission is to get food to the hungry and we do our best to accomplish it.” Wicker said every food pantry in Cook County reported an increase in the number of people seeking food compared to last year.

“The increase was noticeable even before Sept. 11 and ranges from as little as 2 percent to as much as 40 percent,” she said. Nearly one-third of households who depend on CGFD include at least one working adult.

She added that a growing number of those seeking assistance are families who are being pushed off welfare under the provision that imposes a lifetime limit on how long a person may receive aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“Hunger in America,” a study commissioned by America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest distributor of food to pantries, soup kitchens and shelters provides the gruesome details of food deprivation and hunger in Chicago and surrounding Cook County:

• More than one-third of those who rely on emergency feeding programs are children under 18 years old; nearly 7 percent are under 5.

• More than three-quarters have incomes below the official federal poverty level.

• More than 20 percent of adult clients are homeless.

• Half of all clients are women; two-thirds are African American; 8 percent are Latino and some 4 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native.

If anything, the situation is even worse in New York City where one person in five depends on food assistance for survival.

According to “Hunger in America,” more than 1.5 million people in New York City rely on free food from soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters to avoid going hungry. Among its key findings, the study showed an across-the-board jump in the number of low-income New Yorkers on food lines throughout the city, much of it coming before Sept. 11.

Lucy Cabrera, CEO of Food for Survival and author of the Second Harvest study, said a number of factors, among them the decline in the economy, the sudden surge in unemployment among thousands of low-wage workers as a result of Sept. 11, and a general tightening of the job market, have contributed to an increase in the number of “first-time users” forced to seek aid from food relief programs.

In addition to an influx of “first-time users,” the New York City survey showed:

• 71 percent of those new to the program are African American women; 69 percent are Latina women; and that two thirds of new entrants are single mothers.

• Three-fourths of New York City’s food pantries, 80 percent of its soup kitchens and more than half of its shelters report a substantial increase in the number of low-income people turning to their programs to avoid going hungry.

• Approximately 45 percent of clients are white; 35 percent are African American and 17 percent are Latino.

• Nearly 40 percent of households receiving food have at least one employed adult.

• Two-thirds have incomes below the official poverty line.

• Six percent are receiving public assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

As the post-Sept. 11 economy continues its downhill slide, the demand that the federal government take action to provide aid to the unemployed has grown.

At a recent congressional hearing, Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy for Catholic Charities USA, told members of Congress that in the past year requests for emergency food assistance nationwide, including at Catholic Charities agencies, were up 30 percent, in the last year. She said the typical family coming to Catholic Charities for emergency food assistance has a parent working at jobs paying between $5.15 and $7 an hour.

“Our experience with these working families has led us to conclude that the federal government can and must do more to ensure that parents can provide for their children without having to come to Catholic Charities for a handout,” she said.

“The factors that make it so difficult for working parents to provide for their families – working for less than a living wage, a shortage of affordable housing and quality child care, and a lack of access to health care – are national problems that require a national solution.”