The state of hunger More need, less aid: Job growth has not put a dent in rising caseload at soup kitchens.

November 23, 1997

News of Marylanders waiting in long lines to get a cheap meal because a pizza chain's football promotion went awry is a hoot. Marylanders waiting in long lines to get a free meal for themselves and their children is a crisis.

Guess which gets more attention?

Hunger in Maryland keeps growing. Volunteers who serve the casseroles at soup kitchens and distribute canned goods at food pantries are at a loss to explain why job growth and low unemployment have not dented their client load. Indeed, people with full-time jobs and families with children constitute the fastest growing segments of the population requesting emergency food.

This problem hasn't surfaced on the political radar screen yet, perhaps because it defies easy rhetoric. The debate that led to welfare reform concluded that the able-bodied should get off the dole. But what to do when folks are working 40 hours a week and still must rely on donated food to feed their families?

"There's a sense of permanence about this now," says Ralph E. Moore, chief operating officer of the Maryland Food Committee, the state's largest anti-hunger organization.

Some 200 food pantries and soup kitchens throughout Maryland have reported increases of roughly 20 percent each of the past three Octobers. Anecdotes support the cold statistics:

The staff of Our Daily Bread, the downtown soup kitchen run by Associated Catholic Charities, used to see families with children mainly at the end of the month. Now, they are showing up in the lunch line all month long. This past week, the hottest tickets at Our Daily Bread's paradoxically upbeat and high-spirited lunchroom were not for a ballgame, but for Thanksgiving dinner. Five hundred passes were distributed.

The Maryland Food Committee got a call not long ago from Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. The chief wanted to know if meals could be arranged at some Police Athletic League facilities throughout the city. Commissioner Frazier originally assumed children leave the centers to go home at dinnertime. He was disheartened to learn that many children have no reason to leave a PAL Center at dinnertime with slim prospect of a hot meal at home.

In Baltimore County, where smokestacks once symbolized a comfortable life for the working class, the major anti-hunger organization report a fivefold increase in people served this fall, including many with jobs.

"This isn't the old debate about people not working," says Robert P. Gajdys, executive director of the Community Assistance Network Inc. His agency served 40,000 households this year, more than during the recession of the early 1990s.

The main contributors to an expanding "hunger industry" are the problems encountered by low- and semi-skilled workers trying to make ends meet on meager wages and cuts in the food stamp program a year ago totalling $28 billion. Tufts University professors deduced this cut equaled enough food to fill a convoy trailers stretching from Earth to the moon.

House Bill 1507 would restore $1.5 billion of that aid. Half of Maryland's congressional delegation has signed on in support -- Democrats Elijah E. Cummings and Albert R. Wynn and Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Constance A. Morella. Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin is conspicuously absent; he is reluctant to unravel pieces of bipartisan welfare reform.

At the state level, Gov. Parris N. Glendening should request $10 million in his budget that would be distributed to all jurisdictions on a formula basis.

Science bears out the fact that people don't work well and children don't learn when they ache for food. Even those who have never been truly famished a day in their lives can grasp that. Seismic shifts in the economy and welfare reform have punched a hole in the safety net that altruism and volunteerism have not been able to fill.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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