The Face of Hunger in North Texas

Carmen Rafferty spends the second Friday of every month in the parking lot of the First United Methodist Church of Hurst. She is not there to attend religious services, but to pick up food from a mobile food pantry.

Rafferty is one of hundreds of people who come to fill a shopping cart with food. Fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and meat are unloaded and spread out on tables for people to take home at no cost.

More than one third of households reported making choices between food and other living expenses every month.

Rafferty worked for 23 years at DFW Airport, but health issues forced her to retire two years ago. She receives Social Security benefits, but the money isn’t enough to pay all of her bills.

For Rafferty, asking for help wasn’t always easy.

“I am a working person and I didn’t believe in depending,” Rafferty said. “At the beginning you feel humiliated, you feel diminished and you struggle by yourself.”

A friend introduced Rafferty to the mobile pantry and now she comes every month. The food allows her to make her Social Security benefits last a little longer.

“I learned it’s not bad to need, to ask for help,” she said. “I feel so good because I’ve met beautiful people here. The people are loving and they embrace us, not like we’re less.”

Rafferty’s story is not unique.

More than 300,000 of Tarrant County’s almost 2 million residents aren’t always sure where their next meal is coming from. It’s what hunger experts call “food insecurity.”

“I think there’s a misconception that we don’t have hungry people in Tarrant County and it’s absolutely not the case,” said Anita Foster, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing for Tarrant Area Food Bank. “The reality is there’s hunger in every single ZIP code in the United States of America.”

Foster said 25 percent of Tarrant County’s hungry are children.

“It’s an invisible issue, but it’s very real,” she said.

Even though the economy has improved since the Great Recession in 2009, many working families still aren’t making enough money to keep up with the cost of living, according to a study by Feeding America.

Families facing food insecurity said they needed an additional $17.38 every week just to buy groceries and other household goods. This is an increase from the amount of money needed by families to buy food during the Great Recession, according to the study.

Underemployment, stagnant wages, and rising costs of living are some of the contributing factors to the growing need among the food insecure.

The Working Poor

Many people believe only the homeless or unemployed receive assistance from the food bank, when in fact many of those who come to Tarrant Area Food Bank are employed full-time or even working two jobs, Foster said.

Over one third of Feeding America clients report that they have visited a food pantry for more than 28 consecutive months on average.

“The reality is that they’re working poor people who just don’t have quite enough to make ends meet at the end of the month,” Foster said.

More than half of the households who receive assistance from Tarrant Area Food Bank have a household member who worked for pay in the last 12 months, according to Feeding America.

“The working poor are those people who are between the minimum wage and living wage,” said Bennett Cepak, associate executive director for Tarrant Area Food Bank. “Minimum wage is $7.25. You cannot feed a family of two or three, and live in an apartment, maintain a household and do all the things you need to do on $7.25. That is not a living wage.”

Food banks were originally created to be used for emergencies or on a short-term basis, but now the majority of people who come to the food bank have jobs that don’t pay enough to feed their families.

Assistance from the food pantry helps to meet the needs of working families, said Sharon Logan, who comes to the food pantry each month to pick up food for her neighbors who recently moved to Hurst from Iraq.

The family of four came to Texas to escape unrest in the Middle East, but Logan said the transition hasn’t been easy.

“He was a very successful banker in Iraq, but now he’s working at the airport just to make ends meet,” Logan said. “That’s why this food has really been helpful. They don’t have to spend the very little money that they have for food.”

 Seniors

Some people can’t make it to the food bank to pick up their groceries — like Toddi Frizzell, who is unable to leave her house.

Nationwide 10.2 million seniors face the threat of hunger, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

The 67-year-old lives alone and can’t drive. She is a year-long uterine cancer survivor, but a lack of mobility makes it hard for her to carry groceries.

“The bus is right around the corner, but I just can’t walk that far anymore and lug all that stuff,” Frizzell said.

Instead, she receives meal deliveries each day from Meals on Wheels, a not-for-profit charitable organization that provides food for people who are homebound.

The meals have helped Frizzell regain her appetite and keep her diabetes under control.

“When I came out of the hospital, I had just basically stopped eating and they were going to put a tube in me,” she said. “Now I eat, and I like what I eat. The meals are all for diabetics and it’s food that I wouldn’t be able to go out and afford.”

Frizzell is one of the 845,776 seniors who are threatened by hunger in Texas, according to Meals on Wheels. Texas ranks fourth-highest in the number of seniors who go to bed hungry in the United States.

Older Americans are prone to hunger for a number of reasons, including immobility, health issues, the high cost of medication and a fixed income.

Tarrant Area Food Bank serves more than 50,000 individuals in a typical week and about 52,000 households in a typical month.

“They’re in that position where they’re having to choose between rent and food, or medication and food,” said Micheline Hynes, chair of the Tarrant County Food Policy Council. “A fixed income doesn’t necessarily mean poor, it just means that if the car breaks down or if there’s a large medical bill, they can find themselves in difficult times.”

Hynes said that many seniors find it hard to get the assistance they need.

“Seniors are proud of what they’ve accomplished in their life and they don’t want to show that they can’t take care of themselves,” Hynes said. “They also underutilize services intended for them. A lot of times, the people who need the resources the most don’t know about them.”

That was the case for Frizzell, who said she knew about Meals on Wheels but didn’t think she qualified for the program. While receiving treatment for uterine cancer, she learned that she was eligible to receive help.

Longer life expectancies and an aging baby boomer population means the number of seniors facing hunger is expected to increase significantly in the next 20 years, according to a study by Feeding America.

Food Deserts

There are 13.5 million people in the United States with low access to fresh fruit, vegetables and healthful food, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

These people live in food deserts.

Food deserts are largely caused by a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and other healthy food providers.

“In some of our communities, even right here in Fort Worth, we have entire ZIP codes that don’t have a grocery store,” Foster said. “People have to travel a great distance to get groceries and it’s often from a neighborhood where people have to take public transportation, so it’s not as easy to do.”

There are 11 ZIP codes in Tarrant County that are considered food deserts, according to a study by the Tarrant County Food Policy Council.

Some grocery stores have a difficult time finding investors because it is challenging to prove that they’re going to make a profit in low income areas, said Lauren Swonke, registered dietician.

Fruits and vegetables provide vital micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, said Swonke.

“We have a food system that’s driven primarily by economics. While that works most of the time, sometimes there are areas that are underserved for a variety of reasons,” Hynes said.

Instead of grocery stores, low income areas are often populated by fast food chains or convenience stores, neither of which typically offer fresh produce.

“We call those food swamps because food is available, but it’s not the nutritious food that you would like,” Cepak said.

Eating highly processed foods on a long-term basis can have harmful health effects, Swonke said.

“They’re setting their body up for a more pro-inflammatory, pro-disease environment,” Swonke said. “They are going to be more likely to develop things like diabetes, hypertension, cancer.”

One way to increase access to fresh produce in food deserts is the creation of community gardens.

Gardeners are free to plant whatever they like as long as the plants are non-toxic and the gardener uses organic gardening methods, said Merkle.

Instead of walking miles to the nearest grocery store, residents can go to the community garden to access fresh produce from free community plots, said Denise Merkle, president of the Fairmount Community Garden.

The Fairmount community garden has more than 70 plots. Most of the plots cost $55 each year to rent, but a few are free for public access.

“If someone wants a tomato, they can have a tomato,” Merkle said “That is really lacking in food deserts.”

Other gardens, such as the Tarrant Area Food Bank Community Garden, donate their produce to local food pantries.

“I really like the idea of providing affordable or free produce to people who otherwise might not be able to buy it, or might be buying ramen noodles or something else at the store,” said Kelsey Shaban, a volunteer at the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s community garden.

Volunteers harvest up to 200 pounds of produce each week at the Tarrant Area Food Bank community garden.

It’s crucial that people realize the garden is a way to get nutritious food to people in need, said Merkle.

“I can’t speak to the number of people who would be much hungrier if they didn’t have the community garden,” Merkle said. “But I know there are a number of people who do eat from their plots and there are some that have been gardening to feed themselves because it’s necessary.”

For now, Rafferty, Frizzell and thousands of others will continue to use the resources available to them so they don’t have to go to bed hungry.

Visit the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s website for more information about food pantries and other resources in Tarrant County.