The Invisible Faces of Hunger

Madison, where the farm-to-table movement thrives and foodies flock to an eclectic restaurant scene, is also home to the increasingly worrisome, yet often unrecognized issue of food insecurity

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PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

This is a story about everyday Madisonians who struggle to get enough to eat. It starts with Mikko, a thirteen-year-old boy—too young for his real name to be used here—who has endured days without a meal. Frequently in trouble at school, Mikko was arrested twice for shoplifting food before he enrolled in an after-school program he once stole food from. When he first came to the Goodman Community Center, the only fruit he had ever eaten was an apple, and all the veggies he’d consumed—corn, beans and peas—came from a can. Now he enjoys healthy and nutritious meals at the center and is always given food to take home to eat later with his family.

Unfortunately, there are countless Mikkos—Madisonians who go to bed hungry. And it’s getting worse. You can see it in the dramatic spike in the number of kids eligible for free or reduced-price meals in schools, the burgeoning movement to define poverty as a childhood disease and the numbers of older adults, especially women, relying on food pantries. Goodman executive director Becky Steinhoff says the majority of people seeking food at the center are from households where at least one person is working. And the number-one recipient of that food is children. This is what hunger in Madison looks like, and these are the stories of ordinary people who live with it every day.

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Chandra Ingersoll is tall. Maybe not basketball tall, but certainly volleyball tall. Tall, she tells us, is how we will recognize her at Java Cat on Monona Drive on a July afternoon. In her mid-thirties, Chandra looks healthy, attractive and well dressed. She describes herself as shy but communicates comfortably and is eager to talk. Her husband just landed a full-time job at Woodman’s Market making thirteen dollars an hour. There is a waiting period until he is eligible for benefits, but eventually he will be on their health plan. The couple has three children, ages twelve, fourteen and sixteen, all active in sports and other school activities. The oldest, a student at La Follette High School, is enrolled in the education accelerator program AVID/TOPS and finished the last school year with a 4.0 grade point average.

PHOTO BY MIKE REBHOLZ

Chandra Ingersoll in the home she shares with her husband and three kids

By all accounts, Chandra seems to lead a normal life, one where none of the half-dozen customers in the coffee shop, or the two people working behind the counter, or anyone seeing her get in her car and drive away, would guess for one minute that she struggles to put food on the table every day.

“Hunger in Dane County is primarily food insecurity—not necessarily knowing where a next meal will come from,” says Ernie Stetenfeld, associate executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul District Council of Madison. “It is the product often of the food dollar being the last one spent, after rent, utilities, credit card bills, rent-to-own payments, et cetera.”

That description is all too familiar to Luke Reddington, who says the rent on his family’s duplex is $950 a month. “Nine-fifty is pretty high with all the other bills like gas and electric and water and gas to get to work,” he says. “Then other things for the kids, just things that pop up, everyday living. One paycheck [a month] is rent, one is bills. There’s not a lot of leftover cash for anything. Because of the food pantry, we’re able to make do.”

Luke and his five-year-old daughter, Nora, meet us at the door of their home on Milwaukee Street. Two-year-old Melody is sleeping. His wife Rachel is at her job “as a scientist,” Luke tells us, at the Institute for Biology Education on the UW–Madison campus. Luke works about fifteen hours a week doing closed captioning. He has a modest disability, but staying home with the kids is more about saving on childcare costs than being unable to work. The family is staying afloat, barely. Their home is comfortable, but you can tell they can’t afford a lot of niceties. Still, there is no obvious evidence that without the weekly visit to the River Food Pantry, even staying afloat would not be possible.

Food insecurity is not a new problem in Dane County. A quick online search brings up a November 1990 Isthmus piece in which Helen Grimmenga, then a supervisor for Community Action Coalition’s food unit, said, “The most difficult thing is trying to convince people there is a hunger problem right here. Hunger is a very silent problem.”

Statistics reveal that, for the most part, food insecurity is almost inextricably linked to poverty. Making that very clear is the United Way’s Healthy Food for All Children task force, which recently released a ten-year plan to increase access to fresh and healthy food for all children in Dane County. According to the task force’s report: “While not every low-income child is hungry, almost all hungry people are low-income because they simply cannot afford to buy enough food, cannot afford nutritious foods or cannot grow enough good food on their own.”

Certainly the recession has been a significant factor in the rise of food insecurity. From 2008 to 2011, the number of children in poverty grew by an astonishing sixty percent, according to the United Way of Dane County. Sixteen percent of children under eighteen in Dane County live in poverty. That’s 16,129 children who are likely to be food insecure. Of course, poverty, as the UW–Extension’s Poverty and Food Insecurity in Wisconsin and Dane County report points out, is a subjective term. In 2010, the federal poverty line was $22,314 for a family of four and $11,139 for one person. Most researchers agree that the poverty line underestimates the minimum resources necessary to meet basic needs.

This is the case for Karen Van Wie, whose annual income is above the minimum. On a recent visit to her home in Monona, the apartment complex parking lot is being repaved, so she is waiting for us on the street as we pull up. The walk to her building allows her to show us the nearby church community garden out back and the flowers and herbs growing in the neat gardens and raised beds in front of most of the apartments as well as on the porches of those on the upper floors. The building is a HUD-funded project for senior citizens and people with disabilities. Karen is sixty-two and she has a number of disabilities that she seems able to accommodate without any dramatic infringement on her ability to live independently. She lives with her two cats in a small one-bedroom unit comfortably furnished and decorated with art, pictures and items Karen has crocheted or knitted.
She once owned a successful business catering to such interests called The Yarnery.

While “lives alone” is a technically accurate description of Karen’s home life, waiting for us as the elevator doors open to the second floor is Helen Chadwick. A fellow resident, Helen is ninety, and she’s a pistol. She is also the one who told Karen about the River, which she discovered after her doctor recommended the pantry for access to better nutrition. Both women mentioned the stigma associated with going to a food pantry, so they go there together. They’re pals. Karen is smart; she cobbled together everything she could from a divorce (spousal benefits), Supplemental Security Income benefits and available community agency resources. Karen helped Helen do the same. “I found out she was not getting her due from her husband’s death,” says Karen. “She was in a not-so-nice marriage, too.” But if Karen’s and Helen’s lives strike us, as we assume they strike everyone, as comfortable if not lavish, it quickly becomes clear that without the River Food Pantry both women would have all kinds of problems.

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