By Neil Heinen and Nancy Christy
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.
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.