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Hard Choices And Tight Budgets: Food Insecurity In Northeast Ohio

Sharise Mayfield Smith (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

By Tony Ganzer, ideastream

It's nearly summer, and area food banks are gearing up for a rush of clients. Kristin Warzocha, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, says summer is the busiest time of the year for feeding families, especially with so many low-income children out of school, and parents needing to pay for day care and plan for more meals.

The higher summer demand compounds an issue persisting all year-round: food insecurity.

According to the latest data, Warzocha says 1 in 6 people in the foodbank’s six-county-service area is food insecure at some point in the year. 

“Food insecure is a condition for someone who doesn’t always know, on a regular basis, where their next meal is coming from,” Warzocha says. 

It’s true, she says, that thankfully doesn’t mean people are starving in the streets, but many do have to make hard choices about eating or paying rent, or eating well and keeping the lights on.

“It could be a senior who’s skipping meals because they’re choosing between food and medicine, or a parent who is stretching meals or not eating a dinner at night so that their children can eat.  But someone who doesn’t consistently know how they’re going to put food on the table," Warzocha says. “Most folks don’t understand what food insecurity means, it’s a complicated term.  When I talk to clients they’ll say, ‘well I’m just having a hard time getting by right now, but I know other people who need it more than I do.’”

Warzocha says food banks are serving more people now than they were before the Great Recession.

“My name is Sharise Mayfield Smith. I’m a homemaker—five boys and five girls.” 

Mayfield Smith agreed to tell a little about her experience making ends meet.  She lives on Cleveland's west side.

“My kids get SSI; some get TANF which TANF means welfare, they just switched the word to TANF; I get food stamps—which is not a lot—but I have to take regular money to put with that, including my bills.”

“When I had three or four kids, you know, when I really wasn’t getting disability, or just getting a little check, because once you pay your bills you know, you’ve got to scrounge at what’s left.  Ain’t no McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, or Applebee’s—them fancy restaurants, we’re not going there. So it’s a challenge, it’s a challenge, even with clothes and shoes.  You just have to make ends meet.”

“Just because you have a job, you got to do the same thing we do, whether it’s with kids or not. A single person, I’m quite sure if I didn’t have no kids, you know I’d be struggling, out here walking around trying to find my next meal and where to get clothes at, too. That just like my brother: he stay at St. Herman’s, that’s a church.  He get his food there, he get his meal there. You know, he been trying to get a place for almost five or six years that he has been out of jail.  I mean, he came and stayed with me.  You know I had to put him out after three years because I couldn’t take it.  It’s too much.”

“God?  Yes, I live on the edge with God. I have to.  I have to.  I mean I’m married, too, but I’m separated.  But, you know, I still have to do what I have to do. You know, I try to you know, just maintain.  It’s all I can do. If it don’t be for God upstairs, I wouldn’t wake up every day. So, it’s a lot on my mind. I go through a lot, you know I signed myself up for counseling, things like that.  You know, so I’m trying, that’s the best that I can do.”

“That’s what I’m trying to teach my kids: they gets real mad when they can’t get $200 pair of shoe, and I look at them and ‘look, I don’t have it on my feet.’ But my kids look and dress better than I do.  I’ve tried to teach them the best way I can.  Like last year Thanksgiving, I invited a few families over and I cooked a big meal and I fed two, three families.  They didn’t have anything, so I took it upon myself to gather up a whole lot of food with some of my kids’ help—because I give them allowance, they gave me some of their allowance, and we went out and we cooked for two, three families and they came to my house and ate.”

“It was always told to me: other people got bigger problems than what you have. I mean, we all got problems, we all got issues, there’s something wrong with all of us, my mother always told me that.  So, you’re just gonna have to shape up a little bit, tighten up on the wallet side, you know, because we don’t know what’s coming.”

That's the experience lived by mother of ten, Sharise Mayfield Smith.

“She clearly talks about the struggles that are involved in trying to manage what she has to manage.  In terms of taking care of her kids, making sure that they’re taken care of, that they’ve got food to eat, that they’ve got clothes,” said John Corlett, president and executive director of the Center for Community Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank.

"She gives one picture of what it’s like to be poor in Cleveland," he said.

TONY GANZER: “[Sharise] mentioned a number of assistance programs that’s helping her get by, and she’s making do as we heard there, can you talk about utilization of some of those programs? We know about SNAP benefits—food stamps—etc.”

CORLETT: “Yeah, she mentioned actually food stamps or the SNAP program, and that’s an important program here in Cuyahoga County. Unfortunately because of some state policy changes we’ve seen participation in that program drop, and we’ve seen an increase in utilization of emergency food banks, and she referenced that as well.  I got the sense that you know she was getting from maybe some of those programs.  She mentioned that her brother was getting help from a program on the near west side.  So one of the things you do find is that individuals like this is that because they have to they are very resourceful in trying to access whatever help is out there, whether it’s charitable help, help from a religious organization, and help from the public in terms of—she referenced that her children receive SSI benefits, some of them receive cash-assistance benefits through the TANF program.  She’s clearly been able to sort of negotiate through those systems to make sure that her kids are taken care of.”

GANZER: “One interesting thing Sharise told me was she didn’t think she qualified as ‘food insecure.’ Do you think it’s just the mindset that ‘this is the situation we’re in, we find help where we can find it’?”

CORLETT: “That might be right.  I also think that sometimes folks, when you’re sort of in the middle of a situation you don’t really have the perspective.  But, I mean, Cuyahoga County has the most food insecure adults and children in the state.  I think the most recent numbers I saw were, we have over 64,000 food insecure children in Cuyahoga County.  And we’re one of not many urban counties in the country where we’ve not seen child poverty drop as the economy has begun to recover, so clearly the number of poor children has either stayed the same or grown larger during a time when we’d expect to see it go down because the economy’s gotten stronger.”

GANZER: “What are some of the trends you’re seeing when it comes to both demand on services but also general poverty?”

CORLETT: “We’ve seen that poverty grew exponentially during the Great Recession.  We saw large increases in poverty; we’ve not recovered from that.  We’ve not recovered overall from the job losses that occurred in this region.  You know one of the things that’s sort of surprising in light of that is how few people actually still receive cash-assistance in this region, very few do; much less than would have prior to welfare reform.”

GANZER: “One of the figures I’ve seen is that demand for food banks specifically has increased 52% since 2006.  Does that mostly reflect the Great Recession or is this something else?”

CORLETT: “I think it does.  I think one of the things that we saw here in Northeast Ohio and in Cuyahoga County was the growth in poverty and need in the suburban communities. I think the other population that has grown tremendously are older adults, seniors.  Seniors have seen their incomes largely flat, and health care costs have gone up, so they find themselves squeezed and I think more and more turn to food banks or emergency food programs as a way to kind of stretch their incomes a little bit further.”


Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.