Star Clevenger has lately found herself in exactly the place she has worked all her life to avoid -- seeking rent assistance and food at an agency for the poor.
"In all these years, I've never asked for help," she said. "I've worked two, three jobs; whatever I've had to do. This isn't my first choice."
But the sour economy has resulted in paltry tips for the 56-year-old Colorado Springs waitress working to support her family. Clevenger has joined roughly a half million people across the state who received donated food last year. Working families in need of food represent an emerging trend that defies the historic stereotype that most people served in food programs can't or won't work, those who aid the needy say.
Last week, Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard and aides for other politicians, including Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Joel Hefley, participated in a "Colorado Hunger Tour" designed to give them an up-close look at food banks that serve the pantries, soup kitchens and shelters on the front lines of the growing problem of hunger.
6.1 million pounds of food
Food bank officers told the group that pending legislation -- some of it stalled for several months -- is needed to boost depleted food banks. The food, they said, would help people with modest means avoid evictions and winter nights without heat while easing the financial strains placed on agencies that help the poor amid shrinking grants and donations.
In the wake of the economic downturn that began three years ago, Colorado Springs-based Care and Share Food Bank, a nonprofit that distributes food to agencies throughout the southern half of Colorado, has rallied to aid the needy. In the fiscal year that ended about a month ago, the food bank distributed 6.1 million pounds of food -- a substantial rise from fiscal year 2001-02 when the food bank distributed 4.9 million pounds of food.
"Ideally, we'd like to be distributing 10 million pounds a year," said President and CEO Gary J. McDonald.
Demand has been high since the Colorado Springs area lost thousands of jobs, McDonald said. Many of those were high-paying information technology- and telecommunications-related jobs, but many manufacturing and construction jobs were also lost.
"It was a freefall in all those industries," said Bill Thoennes, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
And the state's unemployment rate remains high at 5.1 percent, a slight recovery from the 6.5 percent rate seen months ago, but nowhere near the 2.9 percent seen in July of 2000, before the downturn.
Pork and beans
Clevenger, who has health problems, fears missing even a day of work because competition for employment is so fierce.
"Even a can of pork and beans would help," she said.
The single mother and widow of a U.S. Marine who died in the Vietnam War is raising a high school-aged son and paying the bills on $30 a day in tips and a waitress' hourly wage of $2.15.
She sought the help of the nonprofit Ecumenical Social Ministries in Colorado Springs because she and her son are being evicted from their apartment. She fears she will soon be in the same desperate search she was just last year, when, after being evicted from another apartment, she sold her 1989 Pontiac for $400 to raise enough money for her current place.
Even people from the affluent Broadmoor and Rockrimmon neighborhoods are struggling, said Meredith Yorkston, development director for Ecumenical Social Ministries. Some of them have been looking for well-paying jobs for months, even years, and have spent their savings.
Meanwhile, efforts in Congress that hunger advocates say would help needy people stock their refrigerators have been mired or ignored for months, said Eleanor Thompson, manager of government relations and public policy for America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based nonprofit that distributes to most of the country's food banks.
"It's been a challenge to put hunger on the radar in an election year," she said.
No food shortage
Food bank officials say the situation is unconscionable because the nation isn't fraught with food shortages -- rather there appear to be surpluses. Up to 96 billion pounds of food each year are thrown away, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. And at least some of it is thought to be salvageable, if identified fast and handled properly. For comparison, America's Second Harvest last year distributed a little more than 1 billion pounds of food to about 80 percent of the nation's food banks.
"The problem of hunger can be solved," Thompson said.
But because the agencies that help the needy can't afford shipping costs, highly nutritious food like fresh produce and fish spoils on loading docks, even though some of the nation's more familiar corporate food brands want to donate.
Food banks have asked Congress to support the National Food for the Hungry Transportation Fund. The proposal, which comes from food banks, would grant nonprofit agencies $10 million a year for five years to pay for shipping.
But no member of Congress has issued a bill for the proposal. Aides for Hefley and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. were not familiar with the proposal and declined to make any commitment in support of -- or in opposition to -- such legislation during the Colorado Springs leg of the hunger tour last week.
Food banks also support tax incentives to allow businesses to write off donated food for fair market value, rather than allowing the Internal Revenue Service to determine the amount donations are worth, increasing possible donations. But popular legislation stalled a year ago when the Senate and House passed different versions of the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act and a committee was never formed to hash out the differences. The legislation had little opposition when voted upon more than a year ago in the Senate and in December in the House. Colorado's two senators and seven representatives supported the bills.
Aides participating in the tour declined to say why they thought the legislation was delayed.
A "Blueprint to End Hunger," issued by the National Anti-Hunger Organizations, a nonprofit group that includes America's Second Harvest as a member, made other recommendations earlier this summer meant to keep Congress on track with its promises to end hunger by 2015.
The report urges a wide range of policies, such as expanding eligibility for food stamps and improving nutritional requirements in schools. The report also said the average minimum wage is 30 percent lower in purchasing power than it was in 1970 and should be increased to help people afford more nutritious food.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced a bill in April to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7 an hour, but the bill, with 27 co-sponsors, has failed to gain significant support. Neither Allard nor Campbell is a co-sponsor. A House version of the bill by Rep. George Miller, D-Ca., has 90 co-sponsors; none of them are from Colorado.