Educated, working and suddenly hungry

Michele Heintz received a phone call that her nephews had been placed in foster care. Something had to be done.

Suddenly, the woman who worked full-time with people with mental and physical disabilities became the mother of two boys with special needs. She had to give up her job and rearrange her universe.

Life changed, money became scarce. The family found themselves needing help to put enough food on the table.

“We must rent, and are blessed with fine people as landlords, but with the lack of money when bills are paid, including lawyer installments for the adoption, only a small portion was left for food,” Heintz said.

But the family of four had to be fed, so Heintz turned to Good Cheer, the food bank of

South Whidbey.

“I called Good Cheer and explained the situation and was given the opportunity to utilize the food bank,” she said. “This made such a difference in making ends meet. The pressure was relieved knowing that I could rely on their monthly assistance.”

Heintz, and many like her, are your friends and neighbors. She has a college degree and is an active member of the community.

People standing in line at a food bank are not always who you think they are.

The profile for a hungry person in Western Washington continues to defy society’s expectations. Now, a study recently released by Food Lifeline, the food bank network of Western Washington, has the numbers to support this claim.

Roughly 62 percent of the hungry people who use Western Washington food banks count a job, Social Security, unemployment or disability as their main source of income, according to the study.

Only 4.5 percent count welfare as a primary source of income.

“What we have learned is that people are very often working,” said Linda Nageotte, president and CEO of Food Lifeline. “Just because you followed all the rules doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” she said.

The stereotype of somebody in need being a homeless person or drug addict does not apply any longer. Heintz is a good example of that.

“We are a teaching family; with issues of what is appropriate behavior in our home and in the community, nurturing and respect,” Heintz said.

The Hunger in America study is conducted every four years and was commissioned by America’s Second Harvest — the largest non-profit domestic hunger relief network in the United States — to learn more about hunger.

Food Lifeline, the network’s Western Washington member, surveyed 301 clients and 179 member agencies — including Good Cheer on South Whidbey — to better understand the local face of hunger.

Two things stood out about Western Washington:

The education level of hungry people is significantly higher here than anywhere else in the United States, Nageotte said. In Washington, twice as many people in need have some form of post-secondary degree of education than anywhere else in the country.

Nearly 45 percent of the individuals using a food bank, meal program or shelter in Western Washington have some form of post-secondary education, and only 15 percent are actually homeless, according to the study.

What people earn doesn’t keep up with the cost of living in Washington.

“Twenty percent of Washingtonians spent at least half of their income on keeping a roof over their head,” Nageotte said.

“This information just confirms what many folks who live in the Pacific Northwest already know — that the cost of living is very high. Good, high-paying jobs are not easy to find, and that having a college education doesn’t ensure the ability to put food on the table,” she said.

South Whidbey Island is not an exception.

For hundreds of people between Greenbank and Clinton hunger is or has been a reality, said Kathy McLaughlin, executive director of Good Cheer Food Bank and Thrift Stores.

Last year Good Cheer assisted nearly 2,000 individuals, or about 13 percent of South Whidbey’s estimated population of the estimated 14,400 South Whidbey residents.

The organization helped 800 households. But Good Cheer is certain that they did not reach a large number of residents experiencing food insecurities.

“Where are these people in need in South Whidbey?” McLaughlin said. “It’s not real visible.”

South Whidbey’s social make-up is a unique patchwork of rich and poor.

While many people with lots of disposable income call Whidbey Island their home, or their vacation getaway, there is a high number of people who live below the poverty level.

“It’s not people who aren’t working,” McLaughlin said. People who have lost their jobs and need short-term help while they search for new work, or seasonal workers who are dependent on the tourism industry or agriculture, come to mind.

The area is known for its artists, highly educated residents and entrepreneurs, but South Whidbey also has residents struggling to keep afloat financially.

The island has, as most school systems, a concerning high school drop-out rate and a significant meth problem, McLaughlin said.

She said she meets many victims of drug or alcohol addiction, and that no level of society is safe from those problems.

People in a wide variety of life situations come to the food bank, McLaughlin said. Some are seniors on fixed incomes. Some are single parents having trouble making ends meet.

Others are homeless teens or residents on permanent disability.

Good Cheer currently helps about 850 individuals per month in the South Whidbey community. More than 10,877 allotments of food were distributed through Good Cheer in 2004.

Hunger isn’t declining, either. The majority of Washington food banks or kitchens reported an increase in clients since 2001, according to the hunger study.

This trend is also reflected in Good Cheer records.

In 2005, the number of people served was up only 4 percent from 2004, but the previous year Good Cheer reported a 24 percent jump.

People are in need for many different reasons.

For Heintz and her family, the journey began six years ago.

“My companion and I were living on Whidbey working full time in the social services and health care field. We were enjoying our 40s on the island and were financially able to care for our needs and gave support to others,” she said.

When Heintz received the call that her two nephews were placed in foster care out of state, she decided to take them in. She thought it would be best for the kids to be with a relative. Both boys have special needs.

“We gave up our home and I quit my job and moved to another state for a little over one year to await the court’s decision on the boys.”

“We used all our savings to raise them during this time and put in many hours of foster care training,” Heintz said.

She fought for custody and the kids were released into Heintz’ care after a judge said sending the boys home with their parents was not a safe option. Heintz and her new family moved back to the Whidbey Island.

“Our way of life changed dramatically. I could no longer hold a full-time job. The boys have many needs due to their disabilities, and my companion was diagnosed with a life-altering illness. My time is now filled with counseling appointments, dentists, doctors and school issues, as well as constant paperwork and phone calls with government agencies,” she said.

Heintz is not alone in this situation. McLaughlin said many people on Whidbey care for their relatives’ children.

For others on Whidbey Island, economic strains are the cause of temporary need.

“It’s the economy - big time,” McLaughlin said. Companies lay off people, somebody gets sick, an emergency arises and suddenly a family is at risk of losing their home.

People face the choice of paying for the rent and utilities rather than food.

According to the Hunger in America study, 51 percent must choose between food and paying for heat, while 40 percent must choose between food and rent.

This phenomena holds especially true for South Whidbey, McLaughlin said.

Whidbey doesn’t have enough well-paying jobs. And there isn’t much affordable housing, even for people who aren’t looking to own their own home.

“The rents are high,” McLaughlin said.

Grocery prices are generally higher on the island than on the mainland, as well.

For many people in need, the relative isolation of island life means obstacles.

In order to have access to competitive shopping on the mainland, people need a car or have to be able to afford a ferry ride off the island.

It’s also costly to live on Whidbey Island, something not reflected in Island County wages.

The average income for Island County is $21,472, compared to a statewide average of $31,976, McLaughlin said.

When the going gets tough, medical coverage is especially important but often the first thing to go.

“The big thing is health insurance,” McLaughlin said. In many cases people have to choose between health care and paying for food.

According to the study, 40 percent of clients had to choose between buying food or paying for medicine or medical care.

“We encourage our people to pay for medical expenses. Let us help you with food,” McLaughlin said.

According to the hunger study, 31 percent of food bank clients do not have health insurance, 26 percent report having at least one family member in poor health and 19 percent have been denied medical care because they are unable to pay.

“We’re seeing health-related issues emerge as a leading concern for emergency food recipients,” said Nageotte, Food Lifeline’s CEO.

Feeding the hungry, however, is just a temporary fix. The biggest changes have to be made in the political arena.

“We have to figure out our medical system,” McLaughlin said.

While the study shows that hunger can’t be profiled, there are groups that are hit harder than others in severity.

Among them are single-parent households and children.

Jaylene Christy, who works at Good Cheer as part of a job skills training project, said she has occasionally used the food bank, especially when her children were still living at home.

“It serves an immediate need,” Christy said.

Good Cheer stands out among other food banks, because it is clean and well-stocked. Good Cheer also makes provisions for people with special dietary needs, and gives people non-perishable foods if they don’t have a refrigerator or electricity to cook, Christy said.

She said she has always experienced generosity and warmth at Good Cheer.

“It’s security, assurance,” Christy said.

For the most part, South Whibey is comparable with Western Washington in the hunger study.

In all of Western Washington, 62.6 percent of emergency food recipients are adults, compared with 58 percent on South Whidbey. A total of 6.4 percent are seniors in Western Washington, compared with 6 percent of recipients on South Whidbey.

However, in one category South Whidbey was well above the Western Washington average: the number of hungry kids.

In all of Western Washington, 22.4 percent of food recipients are children and 8.2 percent are infants and toddlers. In South Whidbey 34 percent of recipients are children, and 1 percent are infants and toddlers.

McLaughlin suspects that the higher percentage of recipients under the age of 18 on South Whidbey is because many grandparents or relatives already living on a fixed income take care of children whose troubled parents can’t care for them.

It’s something McLaughlin has encountered frequently in her work.

In some cases the parents simply don’t have enough money or are sick.

But the meth problem on South Whidbey may be to blame, as well.

“Meth is tearing families apart,” McLaughlin said.

Drugs in general may lead to problems for children and teens. “There is not much to do for kids here unless you are involved in sports,” she said.

A significant number of the homeless on the island are also kids.

There are 15 children, 53 adults and two seniors registered as homeless in the Good Cheer database who receive food from the food bank.

Life often spins out of control and food banks exist to help people get through those times, McLaughlin said.

She recalled a young man who had struggled in school and experimented with drugs. Eventually, he got in trouble with the law and had to do community service at Good Cheer. He also used the food bank.

The experience helped him focus on his future. He got a full-time job and can now support himself; he only uses the food bank if there are temporary layoffs at work. It’s just one of the many success stories that Mclaughlin has witnessed, she said. There are many more.

For the majority of the food bank’s customers, the help is just temporary assistance, she said. People recover financially and become donors.

McLaughlin said in order to solve the hunger problem in Western Washington it is vital to provide affordable housing and make medical care affordable.

On all levels, people need to learn to make the best use of resources, she said, ranging from government funding programs and corporations donating surplus products, to families learning to feed themselves more efficiently.

Heintz agreed.

Awareness of the problem needs to be a priority for those in the political arena, and everyone should give whatever they can to local food banks, she said.

“Let your child recycle their toys and clothes and personally drop them off,” Heintz added.

“From the president down to our local home farmer and backyard grower, communicate your willingness to be a part of your state and spirited community,” she said.

The prime purpose of food banks is to take care of people who aren’t eligible for help from the federal government, Nageotte said.

“Federal poverty levels are not adjusted to the cost of living,” she said.

Because people in Washington earn more money than people in other parts of the country they may not qualify for federal programs. Still, some can’t afford to feed their family in Washington.

“These people fall through the cracks,” Nageotte said, and food banks are designed to help.

It is necessary that people who are in need take advantage of food stamp programs and other federal nutrition programs, but if these programs aren’t enough, Nageotte said, local food banks can help.

Getting help

Heintz said she and her family used the food bank as a supplement to balance their meals with a wide variety of foods, from poultry and meats to canned or homegrown veggies. That meant staples like flour, sugar, rice and beans, as well as snacks for the kids.

The food bank also provides special holiday meals for pick-up and home delivery to homebound individuals.

“It makes me feel so grateful that this community is willing to share,” Heintz said.

It is simple to use the food bank.

“Just show up,” McLaughlin said.

The food bank in Langley is open seven days a week: Sundays through Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The food bank is located in the back of Langley’s Good Cheer Thrift Store on the corner of Anthes and Second streets in Langley.

Food bank coordinators will ask a few questions such as name, proof of South Whidbey residency, the number of people in the home, and any dietary restrictions.

The information is confidential and used only for internal record keeping.

“Good Cheer staff doesn’t ask a lot of questions. We trust people when they say they need food,” McLaughlin said.

Clients then chose from items that include cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, soup, pasta, flour, beans, rice, eggs, milk, bread, lunch meat, peanut butter, jam, noodles, sauces, potatoes, oatmeal, juice, chili, meat, chicken and occasionally, fish. Sometimes fresh fruit and vegetables are also available.

Some of the food comes from food drives through churches, schools, civic organizations, clubs and private businesses.

Contributions, along with proceeds from Good Cheer’s two thrift stores — which provide 65 percent of the food bank’s budget — are used to buy food through several purchasing programs open to area food banks.

Good Cheer receives food from Food Lifeline in Shoreline. Every Thursday, Good Cheer picks up food from the distribution center on the mainland.

“We take our Good Cheer truck weekly to their Shoreline facility to receive our food order,” McLaughlin said.

There’s a lot of bang for the buck, though.

Every dollar Good Cheer spends in buying food from Food Lifeline has the equivalent buying power of $9.

As an example, the Langley Middle School Builder’s Club recently did a fundraiser for the Good Cheer Food Bank. They presented Good Cheer with a check for $433.27, McLaughlin said.

“Because of our affiliation with Food Lifeline we will be able to purchase $3,899.43 worth of food purchased by the funds raised by our local middle school students,” she said.

For the hungry, however, the local food bank isn’t supposed to be a week-to-week option.

At the present time, Good Cheer asks that people access the food bank only once a month in order so the nonprofit can cover the needs of as many people as possible.

The food bank is designed to supplement and stretch a person’s food supply. However, in cases of urgent need, the staff will find a solution for the person who shows up in need.

“We don’t turn anyone away hungry,” McLaughlin said.

Transportation can be a problem. For those without access to transportation, Good Cheer has a delivery service.

“It will help especially the elderly,” Mclaughlin said.

Heintz said she was never ashamed for using the help offered by her community.

“In educating and explaining to children that receiving help in time of need is as important as giving to others in their time of need, we might break the cycle of my family is better than yours, richer then yours or more educated than yours,” she said.

Taking the first trip to a food bank is intimidating for many, however. Good Cheer makes sure the privacy of clients is protected.

People can load their food through a back door instead of pushing their cart through the thrift store and loading on a busy main street, McLaughlin said. Any information collected is for internal use only.

McLaughlin doesn’t allow kids to work in the food bank, even though there are many who ask to volunteer.

“We just don’t want them to see their friend’s mom pick up food,” she said. Many kids struggle with scrutiny by peers about their families’ situation.

Education is the best tool to change the societal perception of a hungry person.

“My assistant Rita spoke to a group of kids and told them that everyone who is hungry can get food at the food bank,” McLaughlin recalls.

Of course, a bunch of smart youngsters once showed up to find out if they would really get a snack.

They said they were hungry. A Good Cheer employee put them to work weeding for a little bit and gave them a snack for their work, McLaughlin said. Lesson learned.

Nageotte encourages adults to volunteer and learn about food bank programs. Getting rid of the stigma should be a goal for everybody.

“This is a societal shift that takes a long time,” she said.

By volunteering people will learn that the needy are from all walks of life.

“People would be surprised by what they learn,” Nageotte said.

She also suggested that schools bring in speakers to teach children who is hungry in America. It also means spreading the word that a college degree and hard work is not insurance against bad fortune.

The hunger study is just a start for those organizations who try to put food on the table for those who need help.

“This study highlights just how vulnerable the hungry people of Western Washington really are, and how important it is for the agencies that feed them to have access to a wide variety of nutritious food,” Nageotte said.

Food Lifeline collects data so it can tell the truth about who is really hungry, as well as using that information to spot trends.

“We desire to accurately tell the story of hunger in Washington,” she said. Nageotte added that public officials need to know more about hunger to make informed decisions as they face difficult choices when spending taxpayers’ dollars. The public must learn that hunger exists in the United States so they can be active in helping to solve the problem.

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