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
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.
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.
PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN
The Reddington family in their east-side home
Kathy Utley, former food security manager at the Goodman Community Center, sees people who fit Karen’s profile all the time. “[An] astounding fact that I [saw] in our food pantry is the growing number of senior women needing food assistance,” she says. “As men and women from the Baby Boomer generation are entering into retirement, pensions and
Social Security benefits are often much lower for women than men. Elderly women who are living off fixed incomes often have to make the decision to purchase medicine, pay the utility bill or buy food.”
In Karen’s case, it often comes down to the basics. “Even things like dish soap, things like that, when that runs out, how am I going to get more of that?” she laments. “Well, the only way to get more is to spend $50 of my food budget. So if I do that, how do I eat?”
Hunger aside, some of the health impacts of food insecurity are more obvious. “In fact, for some people who are food insecure in Dane County and in much of the nation, too many calories or empty junk food calories consumed when food is available can lead to a measure of obesity and the associated chronic illnesses of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease,” says St. Vinny’s Stetenfeld. In other words, food insecurity can lead to bad choices simply by virtue of the kind of food that is available and affordable. But there are less evident health impacts as well. Helen Chadwick has deficiencies of vitamins B and D. She has been taking supplements, including injections, and since she’s been going to the River Food Pantry with Karen and bringing home healthier options, things have improved. She is now getting her vitamin B shot every two months instead of monthly. “Karen said it’s improving,” Helen tells us. “Well, I have her as a good friend.”
PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN
Karen Van Wie (left) and Helen Chadwick are neighbors in Monona
Over the last ten years, food pantries like River, located near the intersection of Packers Avenue and Northport Drive on the city’s north side, have grown increasingly sophisticated and sensitive in how they operate. For example, shoppers now select only the foods they want—with some restrictions—rather than receiving a standard bag packed with various foods regardless of dietary preferences or restrictions, family makeup and so on. Likewise, with the help of food aggregators like Second Harvest and Community Action Coalition, all local pantries try to offer a greater variety of products, including more fresh produce, meats and dairy—a reflection of the increased awareness of the health needs of clients and of the desire to make visits feel more like a normal shopping experience. It’s traumatic enough to be food insecure; to worry about where you’re going to shop for your next meal and what you’re going to find once you get there just adds stress to an already difficult situation.
Luke Reddington found some degree of comfort after visiting a food pantry and seeing for himself who else was sharing that experience. “I didn’t know about a food pantry until I went,” he says. “This is such a help right now because, you know, I think a lot of people feel, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be so poor and you’ve got to be in the slums to go to a food pantry,’ but that’s not the case. There are all walks of life that go to the food pantry that, you know, we’re all trying to get by together.”
Chandra Ingersoll, too, views the River Food Pantry as a valuable resource. But she acknowledges the reality of food insecurity can be tough on kids. “I think they might worry,” she says, “because sometimes we don’t have stuff in the house. I think there are times they would like to go to the grocery store and just buy whatever they want. And it’s like, we just can’t. It’s hard enough to take them … I try not to let them worry about it.”
Reddington deeply understands this challenge, wondering if his and his wife’s anxieties affect young daughter Nora. “Hopefully not,” he says. “I know that she has heard Rachel and I stressing about some things … and in my family, too, when I was growing up things were difficult at times.”
Ernie Stetenfeld has been working on hunger issues for decades, and his deep background and experience are reflected in his perspective. “The lives of those who turn to us for help are diverse. Some are part of a cycle of generational poverty; their parents and grandparents were poor, perhaps often unemployed or under-employed and lacking in the education and skills that would make them employable—especially when the economy takes a downturn. Some are the ‘new poor,’ people who were earning an income while just one paycheck away from poverty, and then suddenly that paycheck didn’t come or was reduced; these know least well how to access resources that can help them through leaner times. In most cases, food pantry clients’ lives are often marked by uncertainty about resources—on either a long-term or sudden basis—and the need to develop coping mechanisms and resources the rest of us meet with adequate incomes.”
Asked what she would like people to know about her food-insecure life, Chandra Ingersoll says it’s that “there are places that you can give to” and that everyone can help keep the food pantries stocked.
“Well, a lot of people don’t know I am [food insecure], so this is going to be like coming out of the closet,” says Karen Van Wie. “My friends at church are going to know, my kids. I don’t go around talking about it. But people don’t know what’s there [at a food pantry], and they have a preconceived idea of who’s there and then when you get there, it’s like me, seeing my friend there.”
Luke Reddington’s message is both resolute and constructive: “I hope people read this and think that [going to a food pantry] is a good idea, and maybe I could swallow my pride and go there. Because we did, and it was the best thing we ever did. I don’t know how we got by before with not going to the food bank.”
Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. He and wife, Nancy Christy, write the monthly Genuine Articles column.
So, what can we do?
PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN
The River Food Pantry is a valuable resource in the community
Kathy Utley, former food security manager at the Goodman Community Center, says, “The sad reality is that we really do not have clear data that show us the true situation in this county regarding hunger.” Many of the families Goodman serves are undocumented, including elderly women with no Social Security benefits. Food pantries, says Utley, “are critical for the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens.” Ending hunger requires a multifaceted and community-wide approach, and Dane County is blessed with people and agencies working toward that end. These are just a few examples:
1. United Way of Dane County: The Healthy Food for All Children Delegation, chaired by Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin division manager Chris Brockel, developed a ten-year plan to increase access to healthy food, focusing on increased participation in benefit programs; more neighborhood outlets for healthy food through markets, retail, food gardens and urban agriculture; and better in-school, after-school and childcare food options for children.
2. City of Madison: Mayor Paul Soglin has made the availability of healthy food a top priority of his office. Examples include expanding the weekly Meet and Eat gathering to three neighborhoods and a collaboration with four area health organizations to offer a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $30 per person, for SNAP/FoodShare users at any vendor at one of four participating farmers’ markets.
3. Dane County: Conversations are taking place about dedicating acreage in two new Dane County parks (Silverwood Park and Lyman Anderson Park) for production of fruit and vegetables, as well as developing a processing facility (perhaps in proposed Food Hub or Food District) for preserving the produce.
4. Catholic Charities Mobile Food Pantry: This project served 57,400 rural families in eight counties in South Central Wisconsin last year, distributing 1,281,204 pounds of food. Most of these families don’t have access to food pantries, so Catholic Charities brings the food to them.
5. Kathy Utley’s blog, fairnesscafe.weebly.com
6. Second Harvest Food Bank’s Hungry Kate: This website tells a story of hunger in southwestern Wisconsin to help people understand how easy it is to fall into a situation where they struggle. secondharvestmadison.org/kate.
7. Ernie Stetenfeld, Society of St. Vincent De Paul associate executive director, offers these “steps individuals can take to help us”:
- Donating non-perishable food
- Donating funds St. Vinny’s will use to buy food
- Working in a food pantry garden
- Donating produce from a home garden
- Volunteering (“We rely on a few hundred volunteers to staff our busy pantry in any given month,” he says.)
- Include in thinking about all plans and policy changes the impact on those closest to the margins in our community
8. Pediatric Poverty as a public health issue: There is a growing movement, led by the Pediatric Academic Societies, to address childhood poverty as a national health problem. Dr. Benard Dreyer, a pediatrician at New York University and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Childhood Poverty, will give a public talk on the subject at the Madison Central Public Library at 7 p.m. on October 10. He will also appear on WISC-TV’s For The Record program October 13 at 10 a.m.