Thursday, September 29, 2016

29 going on 30: My journey, my life, living the United Way

Loyalty, Baseball and Crakerjack. Or is it Crackerjacks?

by Pete Grignon, Chief Financial Officer, CPA 

“Son, we’re going to a baseball game.” Nap, my father, was a loyal baseball fan who took me to many a game at Cheney Stadium to watch the local home team, Tacoma Giants (1960-1965).  The memory of my father taking me to the ball park is the main reason why I still follow the game to this day.  He would quietly explain to me how the game was played while recording every play on a scorecard. He would cheer on the team and get upset with the umpire.  At five years old, the only thing I could think about was the food: popcorn in the first inning, followed by a hot dog with a hearty spread of mustard from a wooden stick and a dollop of relish in the third. I can still hear the booming voice of the hot dog man, “Hot dog, get your red hot, hot dog,” and see the steam rising from the large metal container he lugged up and down the stairs. The sixth inning was time to open that box of Cracker Jack, or what I remember as Cracker Jack(s). During the seven inning stretch we would belt out, “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.” I remember, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.”  For those of you born in the fifties and sixties, is that what you remember, the plural version?

A little history on Cracker Jack: In 1896, the first lot of Cracker Jack was produced, the same year the name was registered. It was named by an enthusiastic sampler who remarked: "That's a crackerjack idea!" (a colloquialism meaning "of excellent quality"). In 1916, mascot Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo were introduced on the cover. In 1912, toy surprises were included in every box. In 2013, some prizes became codes for people to redeem "nostalgic" games on the Cracker Jack app through Google Play for Android-powered devices.

My dad remained loyal to our local baseball team until the day he died. Stuck with them through the winning AND losing seasons. He was also loyal to my mom and his children.  Some of his reliability must have rubbed off on me when I went to work with United Way over 29 years ago. I still believe United Way is the best way to help the most people as we work with others to solve our community’s toughest challenges. What are you loyal too?

Monday, September 26, 2016

SNAP Challenge - Challenge Complete

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

As the weekend came, we finished out our SNAP week with more of the same. The kids loved the syrup we purchased for the pancakes. Probably because the top two ingredients were sugar and more sugar. 

The boxed mac and cheese made for some interesting conversation. As I opened the packet that came in the box and poured it into my liquid my youngest said, "!?!" I explained that I was making the cheese sauce. Her curious little mind went wild... 

"So that is cheese powder? How do they make cheese powder? Why is it that color? Are you sure they used actual cheese in there? Are you sure it isn't radioactive? Stuff that color is usually radioactive."

For the first time since having children, they had mac and cheese left on their plate. During this process, I confess there were times I thought "Man, my kids are spoiled." But I realized that they are just used to eating foods made with natural ingredients and lean meats and having fresh fruits and veggies. All kids should have that same opportunity. Yet one in four children in Pierce County are hungry. 

My family learned a lot from this experience. We learned:

  • Eating on the SNAP budget did not provide enough food for a family of four.
  • We were often distracted by either our empty tummies or our anticipation for the next meal.
  • Being hungry made it hard to concentrate and made us pretty cranky.
  • The foods we were eating caused us to have digestive issues we didn't expect.
  • Parents in SNAP families likely have to give up their own food to feed their kids.
  • Shopping on such a tight budget was extremely stressful.
  • Having to settle for less-healthy options to stay on budget was very discouraging.
But there were positives too. We learned there were many things we could do to help - food drives, volunteering, donating food or money. But if we are really going to make a difference for the families experiencing hunger, it's going to take all of us. I challenge you to try to live on the SNAP allowance for just one day. That's four dollars for the entire day. Can you do it?

Learn more about United Way of Pierce County's work to resolve hunger in Pierce County by visiting

Friday, September 23, 2016

SNAP Challenge DAYS 4 and 5 – Finishing out the week

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

This morning I had to break it to the hubs that he had to go back down to one muffin in the morning or we wouldn’t have enough to get through the week. I also had to break it to him that we were out of bananas but we could each have another apple instead. Tomorrow, however, would be a different story.

It occurred to me that in a SNAP household, that fruit would probably have been gone long ago. If the kids hadn’t opted out, I was planning to give them my fruit as an afternoon snack. I suspect SNAP parents often give up their own food to feed their kids.

We didn’t end up having as much left over at last night’s dinner so that gave us no other option but good old PB&J again. I was so hungry but the sandwich just wasn’t cutting it.

My body was also revolting. The processed foods, higher fat content and lack of fresh veggies was taking it’s toll (TMI?) and I wasn’t alone. I was tired and cranky and hungry. Really hungry.

After our discussion, the family was all back in on the challenge. But that night we agreed that if they were feeling too hungry, they could supplement our SNAP food with things we had on hand. After all, that’s what the program is supposed to do… supplement. It’s right there in the name Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – SNAP. More than 45 million people participate in the SNAP program and 76 percent of them are families with children.

Unfortunately, the reality is that many families live just like we were attempting. They use the SNAP funds to buy most of their food and “supplement” out of their own pocket when the can. Many rely on regular visits to the food bank because funds aren’t there. It’s a trend our partners at local food banks are seeing far too often. What used to be a service to get people in crisis through the rough times is now as important to feeding their families each month as the SNAP benefits.

It needs to change.

SNAP Challenge - DAY 3 – Lessons Learned

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

Today is Day 3. It is also a late start day. I did not prepare for that. Late start means no breakfast for free-and-reduced lunch kids. Luck for us, there is enough pancake mix for this weekend’s family breakfasts to make a few servings for today.  But I have to work so the teenager gets to try her hand at it. She’ll be in college in less than a year so I like to think of it as a teaching opportunity.

I showed her how to make the first one. The other five were hers. She learned a lot from her teaching opportunity. She learned that if you flip too soon, you slop mix all over the side of the pan and if you are really talented, the stove top. After she cleaned it up and tried again, she learned that you can’t have the pan too hot or you burn the pancake (who burns pancakes!?!). She also learned that when you throw out two of your six pancakes, you have less to eat and you aren’t full when you finish breakfast.

Since I was off to work, she also learned that she could make herself and her sister their normal lunches and opt-out of the SNAP challenge. Traitors.

At dinner, we had an interesting conversation…

“Mom, why are you doing this again?” asked the little.

“I’m trying to help people understand what a family who is like ours but is struggling to put food on the table has to go through.” I continued, “We are lucky. We only have to do this for a week… or a few days for you. But what if you had to do this every day?”

“I was hungry all the time. Does that mean that those kids are hungry ALL the time?”

Thankfully, I knew that there are a lot of people working on the problem and that those people are helping families in need with access to food at food banks and hot meal sites. I explained to her how those services worked. I told the family how, even though extra food from food banks helps, many people have to visit those food banks every chance they get, just to get by.

I was worried that my kids’ decision to opt-out of the challenge meant that they didn’t get it. I was glad to be wrong.

The youngest started naming off friends at her school she was scared might be facing hunger. Kids who came to school without lunches. Kids who talked about being hungry.

“Momma, how can we help?”

With a full heart, I told her there were a lot of things we could do. We could volunteer at a food bank or meal site. We could donate food to drives like the Letter Carrier’s Drive each spring or drives at her school. We could donate money to organizations like United Way of Pierce County that had made ending hunger a priority.

She immediately threw out some ideas of her own… “I can take extra snacks to school each day and share them. And I can share things in my lunch with people who don’t have one. We can share the food from our garden and our apple tree.”

In just three short days, their empty tummies had helped them realize just how fortunate we are and how important it was to help others who don’t have the same opportunities. Even though my tummy was still growling , I knew right there that it was totally worth it.

SNAP Challenge DAY 2 – The questions continue.

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

Day 2 was going to be better.

Hubs and I had leftover soup to take for lunch and we made him two muffins today.
The kids were having Sloppy Joes for lunch. Sloppy Joes! All kids love Sloppy Joes… right? My kids have rarely ever had them so I thought this would be a treat!

As lunchtime approached, my phone started going off. First up… hubby. “I forgot my lunch. Can I just buy something?” Well of course, I thought. But wait… what happens when a SNAP family forgets? Do they have the extra money to run down the street to the sandwich shop? Or do they just do without?

As we know, 34 percent of our Pierce County families live in poverty (12 percent) or are ALICE®(22 percent). ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It means 22 percent of our families are working and doing the best they can to make ends meet but they still struggle to provide for their families. Every penny they have is spoken for. That can make picking up a sandwich when you forget your lunch seem like a much bigger deal than it had been to me in that moment.

Next up, the teenager. First came the photo of the student eating hot lunch with the caption “I’m not eating that.” Sigh. Then came the photo of a pretty good looking salad and the caption “I’m eating this!” Add Smiley emoji! But wait… how did she get that? She used the money I put in her account to eat at the salad bar instead. It cost more than her lunch did yesterday but it was more her speed. So how does that work? Do students in the free-and-reduced lunch program have access to the salad bar? I sure hope so.

At the end of the day, the youngest came off the bus and immediately greeted me with “I’m hungry.” She did have the hot lunch but it turned out that the Sloppy Joe was not all I had made it out to be. She didn’t really like it and only ate about half. The side dish was also not made the way she preferred so she didn’t eat it. She actually liked the options at the fruit and veggie bar today so she had some apples and some carrots but that was it. Are my kids spoiled? Why do they act like eating the school lunch is the end of the world?

Because her class has the latest lunch, they have a snack time to hold them over. We didn’t have snacks in our budget so to make the challenge real, she went to school without one. On Day 1, her teacher had some extras. Today she was not so lucky. And sadly, she wasn’t alone. Parents often send in extras and the teacher buys some too but how long does my 12-pack of cheese crackers last when there are multiple kids without a snack? Are there kids who are never able to bring one from home?

I was relieved to get to dinner tonight. That was until I started making it. My plan was to use four chicken breasts, as I always did. However, when I opened the bag of chicken, I was a little surprised.

What the…?

The photo is the chicken breast I bought for the challenge. The size difference compared to what I usually bought was significant. There was no way I could get away with using four breasts for this meal. I had to use all six, taking away the extras I was going to save for a meal the following week. The meal was prepared with a slightly different dressing as the store brand didn’t make the flavor I needed. I picked something I thought would work but we could all taste the difference. Even though we ate it all, I didn’t feel full. And I was missing my daily salad.

Is this how SNAP families feel everyday?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

SNAP Challenge - Day 1, And so it begins

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

When I made up my mind to do this, I enlisted my family. They all listened as I explained the plan and without hesitation (okay maybe there was a little hesitation) they agreed. I even talked the kids into eating the school hot lunch a few days to really make it real.

Hubs and I got up on Day 1 and made our sausage muffins and packed our sack lunches. The kids were satisfied with the hot lunch option – chicken nuggets and tater tots. And dinner was one of our favs, Taco Soup.

As I was making my way through my morning at work, I noticed a text from the hubby… “I’m going to need two of those muffins. Already pulling stuff out of my lunch.” Okay, I thought. We can swing that.

At lunch time, I pulled out my PB&J… and realized. I actually prefer just the PB. I ate about half of my sandwich and finished the other items. It was clear to me that the bag of apples I bought were intended for kid lunches because they were pretty small. I felt like I was done in about five bites.

As I finished up, I noticed another text from the hubby… “I may need two sandwiches too. Or more chips.” Okay. We can do this.

Later that day as kids came home from school, I was expecting to hear how awesome lunch was. Yeah… not so much. The teenager was disappointed with her nuggets because they weren’t like the ones you get at the fast food joint. In her words, they were “weird.” They youngest thought they looked a little weird too but she ate them anyway. For her it was the fruit and veggie bar that was not up to par. She stuck to the nuggets and ate a few tots.

Both came home hungry and looking for an after school snack. Both ended up hangry when I told them snacks weren’t in the budget. This could be a long week.

Thankfully, there was still dinner. A family fav. They eagerly dished up, sprinkled on the cheese and then started in with their questions…

“Where is the sour cream?”

“Did you make quesadillas?”

My hubby tried to stay positive… “There’s no sour cream? That’s okay. Where are the tortilla chips?”

“Uh sorry. We are going lean tonight.”

No one complained but I could tell, this was going to test us more than we may have realized.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SNAP Challenge - Shopping Day

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

With my list in hand, I marched into my local grocery chain store, determined to come in on budget.

I bought mostly store brands and only got the quantities I needed. I assumed that a SNAP family would also get WIC benefits so I skipped things like milk, juice and eggs hoping they would be covered.  Again, I didn’t buy any lunch items or breakfast foods for my two kids during the week. I again assumed they would eat breakfast and lunch at school through the free-and-reduced lunch program.

As I worked my way through the produce, I was pleased find a salad option that was inexpensive. It was a bagged green salad with carrots for $1.78. In our house, we have salad almost every meal and I thought this would be a good way to keep fresh veggies on the menu. I couldn’t really afford to add anything to it like tomatoes or cucumber but it would just have to work.

I knew produce and meat would present the biggest challenges. When I looked at the options for ground beef, there were three to choose from. It all had to do with how lean they were. There was 93/7, 85/15 and 73/27. Obviously the option with less fat (93/7) was the most expensive but I couldn’t bear to go all the way down to the 73/27 option so I chose the one in the middle.

I also found a bag of chicken breasts for a fraction of the cost. It was from a trusted name so I had no reservations about buying it.

As I started adding it all up, I couldn’t help but think to myself… “I got this.”

Whaaaa… I don’t got this. I was $27 over budget. I went super lean. Super thrifty. How did I go over!?!

Determined to come in at $112 for the week, I started making adjustments. I traded fresh fruit for canned. I eliminated the salads with every meal. I adjusted the soup meal to JUST the soup. I was still over. 

I bagged all the snack items and traded a couple of “splurged” brand names (like the Kraft boxed mac and cheese) to the store brand. I was STILL over.

I knew what I had to do. I had to go down to the 73/27 on the ground beef. It was not an easy call. I really hated doing it. But with that final move, I was down to $110.77... $1.23 to spare.

The challenge was on…

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

SNAP Challenge

by Nicole Milbradt, Director of Marketing

In honor of #HungerActionMonth, I decided to take the SNAP challenge. Thousands of local families rely on the Basic Food program – also known as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps – to provide their family with basic nutrition. On average, SNAP benefits provide $4 a day per person for food. Four. Dollars.

A family of four, like my own, gets an average of $459 each month in SNAP benefits. I spend about $700 to $800 each month on food for my family. I am a thrifty shopper and often by store brands over name brands but I also like to make sure my family has access to lean meats and fresh fruits and veggies. The more I thought about the SNAP challenge, the more certain I was that I could do it without compromising my priorities.

It all started with some meal planning. I chose seven meals I thought would…
  •          Require less expensive ingredients,
  •          Make enough to feed my family and provide some leftovers for lunch,
  •          And leverage ingredients to give me the most bang for my buck!

I assumed that kids in a SNAP family would also qualify for free-and-reduced lunches and breakfasts at school. This gave me more funds towards our other meals but in reality, it’s not that simple. If kids can’t get to school in time for the breakfast service, they have to eat at home. Those who rely on the school’s buses for transportation, don’t usually make it. So even though I was not buying any weekday breakfast foods, many kids in this scenario don’t actually have school breakfast as an option.

My Plan was…
  •          Taco Soup with cheese quesadillas
  •          Cranberry Chicken with steamed rice and salad
  •          Spaghetti with salad
  •          Teriyaki Chicken with steamed rice and salad
  •          Burritos with Spanish rice
  •          Lasagna with salad
  •          Roast with potatoes and carrots

Weekday breakfasts would only be needed for me and the hubby. We chose sausage muffins with a banana. We elected to take advantage of the free coffee and tea generously provided by our employers (a great idea until Saturday came along) rather than make our own at home. For the weekends, we chose pancakes and fruit for our family breakfasts.

Weekday lunches were a throwback to when we were kids. The hubs and I opted for PB&J’s with chips and an apple. We considered going really cheap and doing ramen instead but we weren’t sure our aging bodies could handle the sodium intake! So PB&Js it was. We made a family favorite for one weekend lunch – BLT’s with mac and cheese – and an easy option – Cheese Quesadillas – for the other.

I even threw in some popcorn for movie night, chips and salsa for game day and a special treat of ice cream. I was certain I could come in under my budget of $112 for the week.

Next up... Shopping.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hunger's New Staple

by Lindsay Fujimoto, Hunger-Free Pierce County VISTA

“Pay the water bill, pay the energy bill, pay rent, pay for child care, buy food…” This snapshot of the many monthly bills a family may face leaves many, particularly low-income families, wondering how they can stretch their dollar to cover all of their expenses. This is often where federally funded programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) come in. However, many struggling families do not qualify for these assistance programs, and those who do may not receive enough to cover their needs. This is where food pantries come in. For those in poverty, low-income working families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities, food pantries provide relief so families can put food on the table and be able to pay their bills. It is this gap between what is earned and the cost to meet basic needs coupled with the inability of assistance programs to fully bridge that gap that is contributing to a shift from emergent to regular visits to food pantries.

While food pantries continue to assist families in crisis, a large percentage of clients visit regularly with many families factoring monthly visits to food pantries into their budgets. In fact, a Feeding America study showed that “food pantries are being accessed as a consistent, supplemental food source.” More than 50 percent of all food pantry clients “visited a food pantry at least six or more months during the prior year,” many of whom visited the pantry every month. This consistent access is not something that came about in the last year. Instead, it has been a long-term way for families to put food on the table. Feeding America’s study showed that of those who were visiting food pantries once a month, they had been visiting a food pantry on average every month for over two years. Those who use food pantries regularly come from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds, though three groups in particular stand out: low-income and underemployed individuals, seniors, and individuals with disabilities.

First, despite being employed, low-income families fall within the income guidelines to qualify for federal assistance programs like SNAP. While utilizing SNAP helps to put food on the table, a family of four can at most get $649 per month. Many families turn to food pantries as a “supplementary method” of acquiring their basic needs when programs like SNAP are not enough. Other low-income families may fall into the category of ALICE, which is a United Way acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE’s are living from paycheck to paycheck and are still struggling to meet their daily needs. Since ALICE’s fall above the poverty line, they may not be eligible for benefits like SNAP that would reduce their financial strain. Currently, the income guidelines to qualify for SNAP benefits is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is equivalent to a net $2,021 per month. Even if a family makes just one dollar more than the cutoff, they are ineligible for the program. These ALICE families make up the “millions of low-income, food-insecure families (who) still earn too much to qualify for SNAP” and who depend on food banks to access enough food every month.

Second, despite having worked for most of their lives, many seniors now live on a fixed income with social security benefits becoming a primary source of money. In fact, according to a January 2016 statement by the Social Security Administration, the average senior receives a benefit of just $1,341 per month. Having a fixed income means knowing how much one will receive from their next payment, but for many seniors, this also means knowing how much they will fall short in being able to afford their basic needs. As a result, many seniors depend on monthly visits to food pantries and have become some of the “most consistent pantry clients.” Of the senior food pantry clients, nearly 75 percent visited a food pantry at least six months of the previous year with over half visiting every month. This data shows that food pantries are an integral part in helping to maintain the health of our community’s seniors.

Lastly, disability is another key factor in the issue of food insecurity. According to a USDA Economic Research Service article, “disability has emerged as one of the strongest known factors that affect a household’s food security.” To quantify how strong of a factor disability is, “a study by Mathematica Policy Research found that a person with a persistent work-limiting disability would require more than two and (a) half times the income of an able-bodied person to have the same likelihood of food insecurity.” This means that for an able-bodied individual at the federal poverty level making $990 per month, an individual with a disability must make over $2,475 per month to be at the same risk for food insecurity as the able-bodied individual. One should note that this is not the amount it would take to put someone with a disability out of risk for food insecurity. Instead, it demonstrates the disparity in how much money is required to meet an able-bodied person’s basic needs versus an individual with a disability’s basic needs. This is due to the fact that individuals with disabilities “face higher expenses related to their disabilities,” which not only contributes to the fact that “food security (is) more common among households affected by disabilities, but it also tends to be more severe in these households.” Like low-income seniors on a fixed income, many individuals with disabilities receive a fixed monthly benefit. Similarly, this amount may not be enough to meet the individual’s basic needs each month, particularly when factoring in the extra expenses these individuals face. Food pantries again become a critical support system for those with disabilities and one that is depended upon often.

Research shows that families in poverty, ALICE, seniors, and those with disabilities are particularly at risk for being food insecure. In Pierce County, one in ten people are food insecure, making food pantries especially critical to the success and health of our community. United Way believes that everyone deserves a good life, which is why we have partnered with organizations within our community in working to eliminate hunger. We at United Way along with our partners invite you to join us in fighting hunger. You can make a difference in a number of different ways including donating to United Way and our initiatives such as the Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative, advocating for policies that promote food security, and spreading awareness. Together, we can continue to make progress in ending hunger and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bridging the Hunger Gap - Little Free Pantries

by Lindsay Fujimoto, Hunger-Free Pierce County VISTA

As a parent, imagine watering down your family’s food in the hopes that it’ll last you until the next time you can get to a food pantry or afford to get groceries. As an older sibling, imagine trying to help your family by working a part-time job on top of going to school and still not being able to afford enough food. As a child, imagine going to bed early to try to ignore your hunger. For over 122,000 people in Pierce County, including children, that is not their imagination. That is their reality.

Families use these various coping mechanisms but are still left wondering how they are going to make it through the month. The fact is that that food insecurity is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it is persistent. It does not go away just because you have to go to work during the day, and it does not make itself known only during the hours the local food pantry is open. Most food resources only operate for a limited amount of hours per week, which is just a fraction of time that people might be hungry.

One woman in Arkansas started working to find a way to bridge that hunger gap through Little Free Pantries. Little Free Pantries are unique in that they provide a 24/7 solution to a 24/7 problem. Additionally, by installing Little Free Pantries throughout the community, families who have difficulty accessing food—whether it be because of work hours restricting their access to pantries, no transportation to food resources, or a number of other barriers—now have an accessible local resource. The United Way of Pierce County is working with our community partners to bring this innovative and creative idea to Pierce County.

One of our hunger partners, Harvest House, implemented the first Little Free Pantry in Pierce County. Harvest House also houses the food pantry closest to the heart of Graham on Saturdays, with the next closest food resource located nearly 3 miles from Graham. Realizing the impact that a Little Free Pantry could have on their community, Harvest House received an overwhelmingly positive response from their board, volunteers, and supporters to start their own. This positive response quickly translated into support for constructing the pantry and Harvest House’s Little Free Pantry was up and running successfully soon after.

Harvest House’s goal for their Little Free Pantry is to “ensure that some food is available 24/7.” To do so, they aim to provide non-perishable proteins, snacks, and beverages. Sometimes, fresh produce like apples, bananas, and oranges are added. Harvest House has also engages their community in supporting the Little Free Pantry as they posted the phrase, “If you need some food, please take some. If you have some to share, please feel free to leave some,” on their pantry. The community in turn is very supportive of the Little Free Pantry, and as such, actively add new donations to the shelves.

Since Little Free Pantries are available 24/7 it can be challenging to assess who is using it, but Harvest House have made observations that indicate that they are reaching those in need. For example, individuals who use public transportation, which is fairly limited in Graham, often have to go far distances to get to their station. Some pedestrians will grab a bottle of water and a bite to eat on the journey, a healthy and nourishing snack that they may not have had otherwise.

The United Way of Pierce County is excited to join Harvest House in their vision of ensuring that no person goes hungry. Looking to the future, we are eager to get the ball rolling on installing additional Little Free Pantries. We believe that in working together to implement innovative solutions like Little Free Pantries, we can end hunger for the thousands of food insecure individuals in our community.

To find out how to get involved in a Little Free Pantry project, email me at

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

In Short Supply - Everyday Essentials

by Shawn Paton, Director, Community Investment, Strong Families & Basic Needs
It may surprise you to hear that poverty does not necessarily mean being food insecure, or at risk of going hungry. More than half of all families living in poverty report being food secure. In fact, nearly 60 percent of those struggling with hunger actually have incomes above the federal poverty level. Many are working and fall into the category Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed or ALICE.
The reason for the disparity in food insecurity between these two groups is a safety net of federal food programs that help ensure those below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) receive food benefits through SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program or ‘food stamps’), free and reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children supplemental food benefits for pregnant women or families with children under five years). Once a household exceeds the maximum allowable income level for a program, they must cover 100 percent of their household’s food costs on their own, yet their income may not come close to meeting the “survival budget” for the area in which they live. 

In the fight against hunger in Pierce County, United Way convenes a wide array of organizations connected with the local food system to discuss issues related to hunger and sustainability. It was during one of these discussions that the related issue of families lacking everyday essentials, which includes items such as toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry detergent, baby care items and feminine hygiene products, was raised.
Not covered by food stamps (SNAP or WIC programs), these items are necessary for dental and physical health as well as basic personal hygiene, but many households are forced to choose between buying food or essential household items, must function without these items or they use less of an item than recommended to stretch what little they have. 
Food pantries occasionally receive donations of everyday essentials products to help meet these needs for their clients, but pantries are not a reliable source for these important items. As a result, individuals and families use a variety of coping strategies. For example:
·         Extending existing supply of a product by using less or watering down
·         Borrowing from family and/or neighbors
·         Delaying changing diapers
·         Brushing teeth without toothpaste; bathing without soap
·         Clean clothes and/or dishes with water only; only washing children’s clothing
One often unnoticed group adversely affected by lack of everyday essentials is teenagers. Teens as young as 13 often play an active role in helping to feed their families by obtaining jobs, selling their possessions, with some choosing to go without eating so that their siblings can have food.
On top of being food insecure, there are an increasing number of Pierce County students who report being homeless. Of the 4,000 homeless students in our community, about 30 percent are teenagers. Some may be ‘couch surfing’ with friends or family. Others are literally living on the streets or in cars or tents. Being a teenager and working hard to be successful in school is difficult enough. Imagine the additional stress that not having a stable place to call home creates.
Many of these young people in need do not know about resources that can help. Teens are often unable to access local food pantries because of transportation barriers. Many teens believe summer meal programs to be targeted toward younger children, so they don’t take advantage of free summer meal sites. In addition to challenges with accessing food when they are hungry, these students also face barriers to having the everyday essentials that they need.
To increase access to supplemental food and everyday essentials, United Way of Pierce County is working with our community partners to develop essential needs pantries within local high schools to help meet these needs. By providing a safe place for students to obtain the items they need to stay clean and healthy, we help them maintain their self-esteem and enable them to focus on learning and not on what they need to do to meet their basic needs.
Another project being piloted is the idea of Little Free Pantries in high-need, low-access neighborhoods across Pierce County. You may have heard of Little Free Libraries that provide free books. A Little Free PANTRY is a box stocked with nonperishable food, hygiene products and household items for neighbors who need them.

Interested in making a difference for those in need of everyday essentials? Host an Essential Needs Drive or get involved with our Little Free Pantry project. To find out more, visit our Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Project Page at