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.
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 www.uwpc.galaxydigital.com/diy-project.