Roughly one in six Howard County residents are unable to properly feed themselves on a regular basis, according to a national report.
National hunger-relief nonprofit Feeding America has classified 14,530 — or 17.4 percent — of the county as “food insecure.”
Children have a higher rate at 25.7 percent, or a total of 5,020 kids who don’t always have access to food.
Rates were lower than a year earlier, but representatives from the organizations that feed people said they have not seen much improvement.
The need to feed
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food insecurity” in two ways: people with hunger and people without it.
Food insecure people without hunger are those who have a “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” but they eat enough. Food insecure people with hunger have disruptions to their diets and do not eat enough.
Cheryl Graham, who directs the United Way of Howard County’s 211 social services call center, said food inquiries were the second-most frequent call, falling behind general inquiries.
The center in 2011 received 985 calls about food pantries and 336 about food stamps. Food-related questions accounted for 20 percent of all calls, Graham said.
Howard County’s food insecurity rate decreased from 20.3 percent in last year’s report by Feeding America.
Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders Food Bank Inc., which supplies pantries throughout northern Indiana, said she did not see much of an actual improvement in hunger in the area.
“The need for food, from our perspective, just keeps going up, up, up,” Bunder said. “There’s just no decline at all.”
Can’t bring home the bacon
A report that the Indiana Institute for Working Families released last week supported the theory that new jobs in Indiana haven’t equated to better lives.
One of the state’s biggest hindrances, according to the institute, is a 13 percent decrease in median household income.
A U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report in December revealed that more Howard County residents had jobs the year before, but the average compensation per job was 3.7 percent lower.
Those lower wages have amplified the need for food pantries.
“The long-term picture isn’t any rosier,” Bunder said. “The unemployment rate will probably go down, but people will still be food insecure. Food prices will go up, but wages will go down.”
Exacerbating the need for food, many people don’t earn enough to feed their families properly, but they earn too much to receive government assistance, such as food stamps, said Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry.
“I’m hearing, anecdotally, from our folks that the situation isn’t improving,” said Weikert Bryant, who is also on the advisory board for the Institute of Working Families.
According to Feeding America, of the 14,530 “food insecure” Howard County residents, 40 percent of them have incomes that are too high for government aid.
The constant demand for food is one that Jeff Newton, executive director of Kokomo Urban Outreach, said has not changed in the past year.
The organization, on average, provides food to about 180 families every week. Between 15 percent to 20 percent of those people are new each time, Newton said.
“We would like for it to go down a lot,” he said about the demand for food. “Those people need good-paying jobs. ... Even if you receive a good-paying job, it takes a while to get back on your feet.”
Sally Ripley, director of development for the Kokomo Rescue Mission, said the organization’s clients have been more optimistic about the economy, but the group continues to feed more people.
“We see families that we know, maybe somebody’s working, but they just don’t have quite enough to get through the month,” Ripley said.
The Rescue Mission served 122,000 meals in 2011, which was about 2,000 more than a year before, she said.
How hungry are we?
The average cost of a meal in Howard County is $2.24, according to Feeding America.
In order to meet food needs, the county would need more than $5.6 million, the group reported.
That cost equates to more than 3.2 million pounds of food, said Bunder.
There is a lot more demand than supply.
Food Finders in 2011 distributed about 650,000 pounds of food in Howard County. Combining that with food that the organization does not provide, county pantries handed out about 1 million pounds, she estimated. That is less than one-third of the need.
Weikert Bryant said food banks and pantries have had to step up donation collections and seek out new types of contributors.
“You have to be extremely hopeful in this line of work,” she said. “We would like to see things improve. Our folks continue to work hard. ... There are very few stones unturned in this industry.”