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Challenges remain for those with food insecurity

posted Oct 26, 2017, 4:15 AM by John Ramthun
  • ERICA DYNES edynes@wiscnews.com
  • Oct 3, 2017
    Just because a person has a full belly it doesn’t mean the need for food isn’t a problem.

    April Martell, FoodWIse coordinator at University of Wisconsin-Extension in Juneau County said there is a difference between being hungry and food insecure.

    “The federal definition of food insecurity is whether a person has access to culturally acceptable food for their family,” she said. “Hunger is actually the sensation of feeling hunger pains.”

    According to the United States Department of Agriculture official website, food insecurity is defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The USDA defines food insecurity in two separate categories: low food security — meaning reduced quality or variety with little to no indication of reduced food intake — and very low food security — meaning individuals will have disrupted eating patterns and a reduced intake of food.

    “There can be families that are food insecure because they are not procuring food in a culturally acceptable manner,” Martell said. “They may be dumpster diving, so they might not have hunger but they are food insecure.”

    Addressing both issues of hunger and food insecurity can be a challenge for many reasons, but programs around the Juneau, Sauk and Columbia county area are in place to provide help to those in need.

    Overlapping cycle

    Both challenges of hunger and food insecurity can overlap with larger issues in society, such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Because the cycle overlaps, programs have been looking at how to not only reduce hunger, but to tackle the other issues surrounding it.

    Melissa Duane, Division Administrator of Economic Support for the Columbia County Health and Human Services Department, said through the FoodShare Employment and Training Program the number of people on FoodShare has decreased from 5,240 adults and children in 2016 to 4,831 in August 2017.

    According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website, people ages 18-49 who do not have any children under age 18 in the same FoodShare household must meet a work requirement to qualify for benefits.

    “(FSET) helps them find work, it helps them with resumes helps them with interview skills if they don’t participate in that program or don’t have an exemption there is the possibility they may lose FoodShare eligibility,” Duane said.

    Dawn Woodard, Director of Health and Human Services in Columbia County, said the program is more than just placing people into jobs but placing them into sustainable jobs.

    “There has to be a level of match between their interest and their skills,” Woodard said.

    Private organizations have also taken to the challenges which can lead to hunger. John Ramthun, co-executive director of 6:8 in Prairie du Sac, said the organization not only takes on fighting hunger at the local and global level with its programs — like the community garden and backpack program — but also through its Learning for Life two-semester adult classes on cooking and finance as well as classes on resume building and how to build job skills.

    “We try to put in a lot of energy into our food classes for that particular busy working single parenting (family),” Ramthun, said. “We’ve seen families that once needed the food pantry that have now found a job or were able to cut money out of their budget through our finance classes or be able to eat healthier and they no longer need to go to the food pantry.”

    Through offering the classes, he’s hoping to break what he’s seen in hunger and poverty, a generational cycle.

    “Where mother and father were using the food pantry, now child that now has grandchildren,” Ramthun said. “There’s a norm that’s presented and it becomes more of a cultural norm and that’s the standard they reach.”

    Besides serving Juneau, Sauk, Columbia and Adams counties with keeping food panties stocked and holding food drives at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, People Helping People in Baraboo recently released a work ready program to provide job training for those to enter the work force.

    “We try to stay away from giving them a hand out because our mission is to give them a hand up,” said Bill Harris, president of People Helping People. “We instill hope.”

    The various programs the organization offers have given hope to people like Ross Crowder, who has served time in prison and struggled with alcohol addiction. Crowder used the food pantry about three or four years ago. He called it a “different” experience. He describes not having enough money to purchase food as “hectic” and even currently struggles at times with trying to acquire enough food.

    “I’m not one who likes to go to the food pantry,” Crowder said. “I’m not much of a people person, there are a lot of people in there.”

    Crowder has been involved with People Helping People for nine months, which has helped him turn his life around.

    “There’re plenty of resources at (People Helping People),” Crowder said. “In a way it’s a big help with me because I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t (here).

    Food pantries

    Fred Hebert, Executive Director of the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council (CAC) in Wisconsin Dells said when families run into some tough times, such as a job loss, they may turn to a food pantry for temporary assistance to obtain food for their families.

    “Why do we have poverty? Why are people low income?,” Hebert said. “There are a lot of reasons. Families all of the sudden run into some problems like an accident, some medical problems, maybe they lost their job so they need something temporary and they will definitely get involved in the food pantry.”

    Kathy Green, Director of the Mauston Food Pantry, said when families run into a temporary situation, they may utilize the pantry for only a certain amount of time as bills get tight.

    “They come one month when they need it and then we don’t see them again for three to four months,” Green said.

    Food pantries have also seen an increase in the number of senior citizens who utilize the food pantry.

    “The medical profession and the health profession is getting better and people are living longer,” Hebert said. “People are a little healthier when they get older they are more mobile and they have access to the food pantries.”

    Food pantries receive food from many types of sources, from the federal level to many local donations. Green said government items make up less than ten percent of what’s in stock at the Mauston food pantry, the rest come from local donations and food drives.

    “Last year we distributed over 300,000 pounds of food and less than 30,000 pounds was from the government,” Green said.

    Hebert said he saw a significant increase in the number of people using food pantries after the Great Recession of 2008, but use has remained steady in recent years. One of the reasons he believes the numbers have stablized is an increase of employment in the area.

    “The last three or four years we had a significant increase in the number of people using the food pantry,” Hebert said. “Within the last six months or so it’s kind of leveled off but we’re still maintaining that higher level.”

    Hebert said he’s seen many types of people from different backgrounds utilize the food pantry and struggle with not having enough to eat.

    “I’ll look out my window sometime at whose coming into the food pantry and people show up in a real nice car and they are dressed real nice … there are a lot of misconceptions,” Hebert said.

    During the holiday season, food pantries may see numbers increase to provide a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas dinner for families. Carol Gagnon, manager of the Sauk Prairie Food Pantry, sees an increase from 150 to around 200 families during the holiday season.

    “It’s nice to be able to share that love with family and not worry about ‘Well if I bring this casserole to this house, am going to be able to pay for gas to get there?’” Gagon said. “That should not be a concern. Not at the holidays.”

    Knowing how to prepare certain items received from the food pantry can be a challenge. To help with preparing food, the CAC has a contract with the University of Wisconsin-Extension to give demonstrations at food pantries on how to prepare food. Mauston’s food pantry will soon show video demonstrations of how to make certain food items and recipes. The pantry also hands out paper recipes on how to prepare certain food items.

    The Sacred Heart Mobile Food Pantry, in Reedsburg, purchases the food from Second Harvest in Madison. The food is delivered by Second Harvest to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Reedsburg for distribution to around 200 families on the fourth Thursday of every month.

    “What they (Catholic Charities) are trying to do is outreach to places that aren’t right in the city,” said Mary Williams, coordinator for the food pantry. “There are lots of services available to places in the city of Madison (but) they are trying to reach out to the outlying areas that don’t usually get as much benefit.”

    Williams said there aren’t any income or living requirements, such as living within a school district, at the Sacred Heart Mobile Food Pantry to receive food.

    “You can see people are really in need,” Williams said.

    School programs

    Hunger can have an impact of how students perform in school.

    “If you’ve got a kid that hasn’t eaten for a day I’m not sure (their) science lecture is the first thing on their mind,” said Joel Heesch, assistant principal at Mauston High School. “If we can take care of some of their basic needs and support them it also does help in the classroom.”

    Schools offer many resources to make sure students are fed, from free and reduced lunch, after school snack programs and backpack programs.

    Last year, Portage’s Rusch Elementary School Principal Nikki Schoenborn said she and the staff noticed students wanted to take a second breakfast or keep food so they could give it to their siblings or have something to eat after school.

    “It honestly broke our hearts that kids were trying to take a second breakfast because they wanted the food,” said Schoenborn, who’s also the principal at Lewiston Elementary School.

    To help with the effort, Rusch Elementary School began a backpack program to send food home with students on the weekend. Schoenborn said the program was what she called a “grassroots effort” from the staff at the school district to purchase food and supplies as well as community donations of money and time shopping and packaging food.

    “We knew based off the needs of some of our students it would really be something our students would benefit from,” she said. “One of the reasons we had looked to start it was because during the holiday break for the last six years we’ve gotten a donation from some community members. Right before winter break we would purchase food to sustain families for the week that they didn’t have school lunch or school breakfast.”

    The Sauk Prairie Food Pantry has been working with the Sauk Prairie School District to open a food pantry at the high school — called the Food Pantry Annex — where a separate room is set up similar to a food pantry setting to provide self stable foods such as jelly, peanut butter and soup to send home with students of all age levels.

    “We’re trying to battle food insecurity at the high school level hoping it will trickle down to the younger siblings as well,” Gagnon said. “The hope is to get focus back on school and not on their hungry tummies and not about the worry of what will I eat this weekend?.”

    Mauston High School is also looking to start a food and clothing pantry in the high school as well as a backpack program this year.

    “A student comes in and then fills whatever items are in their backpack it zips up they leave nobody knows the difference between textbooks in there or food items,” Heesch said. “It is a fairly discreet way to be able to support students in another area.”

    While Green is not against the backpack program, she said the bigger focus should be on feeding families within the community instead of an individual person.

    “What I’m concerned about is that food gets traded on the bus, its gets eaten by older brothers or sisters, it gets thrown out the window,” she said. “So you’re not feeding the whole family. Giving the child the responsibility to take home a jar of peanut butter if he’s got somebody that’s 16 and needs the food, that child is not going to eat all the food because they are going to share with their brother or sister.”

    Other programs

    Announced last month, The New York City School District is offering a free lunch program for its students regardless of income levels. Gradyside Elementary School in the Mauston School District now offers a universal program at breakfast time.

    The universal free breakfast program was unanimously approved by the school board in June for Grayside Elementary to introduce the program for the 2017-18 school year and has received positive reactions from administration and students. Because over sixty percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch at Grayside, Principal Bobbi Steele said the district qualified for a grant to launch the program.

    The breakfast is optional for students who arrive to school at around 7:30 a.m. While in the classroom, students have the option to pick from whole wheat breakfast items including pancakes, breakfast bars and cereal. If a student doesn’t want a certain item, they can put it on a “sharing table” for another student to eat.

    Two weeks after the program started, Steele said district served almost 2,000 breakfasts to students, a sharp increase from Sept. 2016 where the district served 1,646 total breakfasts for the entire month. In those two weeks, Steele said tardiness has decreased by 33 percent. Students learn about sharing and how something as little as setting an unwanted food item on a table can go a long way for someone in need. Steele hopes in the future to expand the program into all of the elementary schools within the Mauston School District.

    “It helps them (the students) to understand about waste and understand they need to have more of a mindset to be more cognizant of that waste and how that makes a bigger impact on the world,” Steele said. “I’ve had other kids say ‘Boy, I don’t want this right now sometimes I’m just too full. It’s nice to be able to give it to somebody else.’”

    Speaking out

    One of the biggest changes with hunger is the courage one has to muster to ask for help.

    “I know there (are) people out there that need assistance that we just simply can’t get too,” Green said. “That’s our biggest heartbreak, either because they are so proud or so scared or so homebound or transportation issues.”

    Heesch said high school students may hide issues of food insecurity rather than speaking out about it.

    “They are at an age maturity wise where sometimes you wonder if it’s so they don’t stick out, so they don’t look different,” Heesch said. “Sometimes it’s their life and they’ve learned how to cope with it and deal with it so it is their normal.”

    Heesch said teachers at the school district receive trauma informed training to learn how to identify challenges happening in a student’s life. With hunger or hunger related events at one of those areas, teachers are trained to spot changes in behavior and to build a relationship with the student to find a way to reach out.

    “If we just know who they are we can get resources to make sure we know they are helping them,” Heesch said. “Sometimes it’s those small conversations of ‘I’m kind of hungry today I didn’t have anything to eat … it could mean when they woke up they didn’t have time, it could mean when they woke up they just weren’t hungry or when they woke up there wasn’t any food to eat.”

    Schoenborn said staff may notice certain behavior patterns which trigger the teacher to take action and inform parents what resources are available.

    “It’s natural instinct with some stuff too and it’s knowing your students and checking on when certain things happen,” she said.

    Ramthun said at 6:8 they will meet with individuals one on one to not only address what one temporarily needs, but also give them the encouragement they need for the long-term.

    “It’s a very personal one on one approach with people who are willing to put a little effort into it,” Ramthum said. “Some of it takes the convincing that you can do it, you have what it takes to change your situation.”

    He believes personal contact with education is the key to addressing hunger and the issues surrounding it.

    “If someone comes alongside them that cares and wants to invest in their life rather than just (say) ‘Here’s a pile of food ,that will get you by for the next week come back again,’” he said. “It’s something beyond that, somebody that says ‘You know what, I want you to be not hungry but I also want you to know that you can make a difference in your life.”

    Contact Erica Dynes at 608-393-5346 or on Twitter @EDynesSports.