Going hungry in Mower CountyPublished 10:39am Friday, November 25, 2011
Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 11 to 14 percent of Mower County is going hungry.
According to the Map the Meal Gap study released by Feeding America earlier this year, Mower County is at an 11 percent food insecurity rate. That means 11 percent of the county’s population — those who don’t qualify for food stamps or do but choose not to apply for them — miss at least one meal every other day because they can’t afford it.
According to the Mower County United Way and the Missing Meals Study, the overall hunger issue is affecting closer to 14 percent every day. In Austin, it is a concern for some, especially for a small town.
Lt. David Amick with Austin’s Salvation Army is accustomed to dealing with hunger. He completed his training in Chicago before joining Austin’s Salvation Army, and he said Austin’s scenario is strange for being a small town.
“It’s very surprising for a town this size,” he said.
The time for giving
Every holiday season, nonprofits, retailers, community service organizations, schools and shelters increase their efforts to battle hunger.
Numerous food drives throughout Mower County support the Salvation Army and other food shelves when November and December roll around. For many, it’s time when the bills pile up.
“We definitely see a lot of people who are trying to patchwork things together — because it’s time you’ve got to turn the heat on now,” said Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, Mower County United Way executive director.
Though the United Way doesn’t deal heavily with hunger issues, it provides resources for people to get their other finances in line before they have to worry about going hungry, like the winter outerwear drive or annual Day of Caring.
“In terms of hunger, one of the things we just focus on is making sure other basic needs are taken care of,” Lighthizer-Schmidt added.
The United Way, however, does provide funds for the Salvation Army’s community meals, which start 5 p.m. every Monday through Thursday and are free to the public. Roughly 80 to 100 people attend the meals each night, according to Amick, who has been serving Austin’s Salvation Army since this summer.
Furthermore, the Salvation Army’s food shelf serves 90 to 100 people each week, as the policy is to provide enough food to each participating family for one week out of the month. The organization’s Thanksgiving basket drive just donated 300 baskets filled with either turkey or pork loins, along with stuffing, pie and other items for local families. More people are using the Salvation Army’s food sources than in past years.
Despite all the food drives happening in the fall and winter, the Salvation Army and other food shelves need food year round. Furthermore, Mower County’s need for food assistance has been increasing for several years.
Lighthizer-Schmidt and Amick both noted that people tend to forget about donating food in the summer.
“People don’t think about being hungry in the middle of the summer, but people are hungry,” Lighthizer-Schmidt said.
Despite there being periodic lulls in food donations in the summer, the Salvation Army can almost always support the community.
“I’ve never known us to have to actually turn anyone away,” Amick said.
Amick added the Salvation Army will never turn away any food, and the best way to donate to the organization’s food shelf is always with canned goods for longevity.
A quiet problem
People taking advantage of food assistance programs aren’t the only ones struggling to make ends meet.
Lighthizer-Schmidt said increasing heat, electricity, fuel and rent costs are major reasons people are low on food.
“All those things continue to go up, and salaries aren’t following that same trend,” she added.
Because of that, people with jobs who pay rent, utilities and taxes are missing meals.
Demographics show Mower County’s young families are growing, and they are earning the lowest income. Even so, many are still earning enough to feel embarrassed to join a free community meal or look for a helping hand. So part of fixing the problem starts with raising awareness and taking the stigma away.
“How do you start to get that to be more acceptable?” Lighthizer-Schmidt asked about people using food shelves or looking for support. “Because there’s still a tremendous stigma attached to a food support program.”
Amick wants people to know the Salvation Army’s employees and other organizations realize problems happen to all families. That’s why service organizations exist.
“One of the things we try explaining is: Obviously, things happen, and it’s way outside of our control,” Amick said.
He added, “We’re here not to give basically a handout, but a hand-up.”