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Jobless rate masks area’s ongoing food insecurity

In his new job as a grant writer for Community Harvest Food Bank, Steve Corona has a challenge: How to convince foundations, companies and other funders that hunger persists even as the unemployment rate falls.

“That number is so big in so many people’s minds, but I’ve got a different perspective,” he said. “I cite the Indiana Youth Institute statistics on children under 18 living in poverty. From 2008 to 2012, it’s gone up in every northeast Indiana county.”

New statistics from Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, the statewide food bank association that includes Community Harvest, offer more evidence of the disconnect between rosy economic reports and hungry families. The food bank report shows that the percentage of Indiana children in families with limited or uncertain access to food is higher than the national average. More than one in five Hoosier children – 21.8 percent – is food insecure.

Corona notes that the state’s unemployment rate, which fell to 5.9 percent in March, masks the low wages that make it a struggle for Indiana households to put food on the table.

The Rev. Roger Reece, executive pastor of Associated Churches, which serves about 3,000 Allen County families through 28 food pantries, also sees the disconnect.

“The numbers just don’t jibe very well, do they?” Reece observed. “If you look at last year’s numbers and this year’s, for the first three months, we’re actually at an increase in numbers served.”

Demand at Associated Churches’ food pantries exceeded supplies early this winter, prompting an emergency appeal. Area churches, United Way and individual donors stepped up, he said, but the need continues.

“My food pantry directors are on the front lines, and they get frustrated,” he said. “There’s a lot of people and often not a lot of food.”

Associated Churches is looking ahead to the May 10 food drive by the National Association of Letter Carriers, an important source for restocking shelves. Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” study, however, shows demand will continue. The report finds the food insecurity rate for children in Allen County increased from 19.5 percent in 2011 to 20.2 percent in 2012, even as the economy improved.

The national organization estimates that it would have required $24.5 million to have eradicated food insecurity in Allen County in 2012.

The number would be much higher if not for the efforts of food pantries, Community Harvest and other food banks in the Feeding Indiana’s Hungry network. Jane Avery, executive director of Community Harvest, said the network distributed more than 79 million pounds of food in the past year. Almost 15 percent of that figure was distributed by Community Harvest through 68 agencies in nine northeast Indiana counties.

“You can see that the impact of our network is in providing quite a bit to the social safety net that gets thinner and thinner as people are working their way out of the ‘working poor’ status,” Avery wrote in an email.

One group she worries about is those who are past retirement.

“For so many of them, each day they are older, sicker and poorer and getting a job isn’t an option,” she said.

Economic signs might say otherwise, but the work of anti-hunger organizations is the best indication of how northeast Indiana’s most vulnerable residents are faring. The efforts of Community Harvest and other food banks in recovering and distributing food that might otherwise go to waste, along with the work of Associated Churches and others in feeding hungry families and seniors, is a stark reminder that more must be done to ensure all Hoosiers have even the basic necessity of food.