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Scope of hunger in Dane County is getting worse

Published On: Dec 24 2013 05:05:43 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 29 2013 04:05:03 PM CST


Vincent Washington took his place in line outside of the Bread of Life Food Pantry. It's certainly not his first time at St. Paul's. He and his wife used to volunteer there, until the temp jobs ran out, along with the food in his kitchen.

Now unemployed, Washington said coming to the pantry once a month is about survival.

"Without it, what are you going to do? Go out there and steal and rob, and then where would you be?" Washington said.

Teriann Strassi will also have Thanksgiving dinner thanks to Bread of Life. She started coming in 2010 after her job was shipped overseas and her unemployment benefits ran out.

A mother of three, Strassi is working toward her paralegal degree. Since her husband works full time, the family doesn't qualify for food stamps or other government help when it comes to food.

"There have been plenty of tears. Plenty of days when I feel like I can't make it," Strassi said. "Tomorrow's always better."

According to the latest statistics from Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap study, 54,210 people in Dane County aren't sure where their next meal is coming from at least once a month. That count was taken in 2011, and Pastor Gerry Kuhnke at St. Paul's is seeing the problem get worse firsthand.

"It's real. We're not exaggerating this," Kuhnke said. "And it's getting worse, so how are we going to deal with it as a community?"

Kuhnke said at Bread of Life, he has seen an 11 percent increase in the number of clients compared to this time last year.

His pantry alone handed out Thanksgiving meals to 214 families this year. It takes Kuhnke and his staff $113,000 a year to run the pantry and serve the 10,500 families that walk through their doors for help.

"We do have a challenge here in Dane County," Kuhnke said.

Kuhnke said he sees families go from one food pantry to another around town, trying to make up for what they can't afford off of their paychecks and food stamps. He said that kind of need was not apparent before the recession, and with the FoodShare program being cut back on Nov. 1, current clients are relying on pantries for more food than before.

"It's just not food that they're stressed about. It's, 'Do I have the money to pay the rent? Do I have the money to pay the insurance on a car, etc?'" Kuhnke said. "And I don't think I saw that, let's say in 2006 and 2007."

According to the Wisconsin Food Security Project, 71,551 people living in Dane County are enrolled in the FoodShare program, or about 14.4 percent of the county's population.

Second Harvest Food Bank serves a 16-county region in southwest Wisconsin, including Dane County, handling 100,000 pounds of food every day.

President and CEO Dan Stein said in the last two years, Second Harvest has distributed 19 percent more food to Dane County pantries to meet the growing need of hungry families.

"They're not what people think they are. These are people who want to get back on their feet. They don't want to go through these lines,” Stein said. "This is their last resort, and unfortunately, those lines continue to get longer."

According to Second Harvest's numbers, just 7 percent of those they serve are homeless.

The majority of their partner pantries' clients across southwest Wisconsin have a paycheck coming in, but Stein said low wage employment often makes them ineligible for government assistance and unable to feed their families.

"I'd love to say that the face of hunger is one color or one type of person or one sex, but it's color blind," Stein said.

Stein said threats of further cuts to food stamps are daunting to consider. He figured Second Harvest would have to put out almost twice as much food to meet the need if Congress approves some of the proposals under consideration.

"People need to get their food someplace, and their only place to rely on would be us," Stein said. "And we would have to do something that would be absolutely impossible."

Anyone in need of help with food can dial 211 for information on the nearest food pantry.

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