It’s a term that’s been garnering buzz in the realm of community food pantries and aid programs. It illustrates an increasingly visible scenario for American families: When underemployed or “working poor” households – folks who have, most likely, never set foot in a charity kitchen before – are asking for help to fill their dinner tables.
Local pantries, including St. Vincent DePaul’s four locations in Ebensburg, Carrolltown, Patton and the St. Andrews pantry along Franklin Street in Johnstown, don’t measure the roughly 6,000 people they serve by financial solvency. But touching anecdotes are beginning to surface across the network of volunteers and aid workers – they show how the line has begun to blur between those who “need” aid and those who “don’t” or “shouldn’t.”
When it comes to sustenance – arguably the most basic of human needs – those labels go out the window. The more salient question is: “Are you hungry?”
“You could be one paycheck away from needing aid,” said St. Vincent DePaul spokesman Charles Henderson.
While an obvious factor contributing to this increased reliance is the unemployment rate, most real-life situations are rarely that cut and dried.
In Cincinnati, Henderson recalled, a nurse quit her hospital job after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
She cared for him before he passed away and eventually returned to her job. Soon after, however, her position was eliminated.
She tried to live off savings, but that eventually ran out.
Regardless of their story or the circumstances that pushed them to seek aid, one thing is certain.
“(Families) are sometimes availing themselves of food pantries when they haven’t before,” Henderson said.
In St. Vincent DePaul’s Human Needs division, Rebecca Dunagan has heard a lot of emotion and guilt in her short time as director of the department. She sits down with pantry applicants and assesses their level of need, based on income and expenses. She then refers the families to one of the local pantries for an appointment.
“We sit with people and we talk to them and we hear their stories, so it’s a bit more personal,” she said. “A lot of them say, ‘I’ve never done this before,’ or ‘I’ve never been in this situation.’ ”
Dunagan relayed the story of a recently divorced father who, despite his full-time job, couldn’t support himself and his children, of which he had custody – so he found himself meeting with Dunagan’s department.
Dunagan said part of her job is allaying those fears and anxieties that add to the distress – separating the stigma of neediness from the charity.
“No one can plan for this. It can happen to anyone,” she said. “I always try to reassure them: There’s nothing that separates them from me except whatever circumstances brought them to this place.”
Richard Von Schlichten, director of the St. Clement Food Pantry in Upper Yoder Township, recalled a new visitor from about a week ago. A woman who never had sought assistance before found herself at their door when her food stamps failed to materialize in her Access account. It was simply an administrative error, but still, she needed to eat.
At St. Clement, applicants’ incomes must fall below $16,000 a year to be eligible for assistance.
“When they come in, we’re not invasive or intrusive,” Von Schlichten said. “We just make sure that the income requirements are met.
“I see single moms with kids, but in our case, we have about 85 regular clients and over a third of those are seniors who are single,” he said.
But the fact that the age range of those in need is skewing younger doesn’t surprise aid workers.
Assisted living is an established means of elderly care. But younger visitors, or those with new families, may feel accepting outside aid is a type of defeat.
“Generally speaking, it could be pride that keeps them from asking for any kind of help,” said Henderson. “They may have exhausted all their resources or their savings and don’t know where to turn.
“It’s probably embarrassing to feel they’ve somehow failed,” he said. “But they haven’t.”