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
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.