Waiting In The Food Line

(CBS) With unemployment rising, there has been a sudden leap in the number of people on emergency food assistance. And in Ohio, some of the food lines look as if they've been taken from the pages of the Great Depression. It’s not just the unemployed. Plenty of people working full time are still not able to earn enough to keep hunger out of the house. So if you think you have a good idea of who's hungry in America today, you may be wrong.

Correspondent Scott Pelley reports on this story, which last aired this winter.

Aug. 27...2003

In a long food line forming outside Marietta, Ohio, the people in front came at dawn. Sometimes the food runs out before the line does. So it’s best to get in early. Usually, Marslyn Clark and her husband both work. But Marslyn is taking time off now for her newborn — a girl named Autumn. “My husband really doesn’t make enough for all of our groceries,” she says. Her husband works full time.

Jean Haybron and Edna Swiers both worked at the Goodyear plant before they were laid off when the plant closed at the end of 1999. Neither imagined they’d ever be standing in a food line.

Karen Coe’s husband, David, served in the Air Force and the Air National Guard for 30 years. But a stroke disabled him while he was on a mission to help flood victims three years ago. For them, it is the difference between eating and not eating. “He can’t read, he cannot find his engineering degrees. He was blinded. The VA takes care of him on those issues,” she says. But she cannot afford to feed him without the food line: "Unless I come here, we don't eat."

Also in the line is Robert Lent, a veteran, too, of World War II and the Great Depression. He waited in food lines as a boy. “We’re doing things that we did before food stamps. Before we had various programs and quite frankly it’s a little bit hard to watch sometimes,” says Bob Garbo, head of the local affiliate of the non-profit group America’s Second Harvest. The food being distributed in his line comes mostly from government programs and from private donations.

On that day, the line grew so long that they brought in an extra truck — they hadn’t done that before. But since 1999, the number of people getting emergency food aid in Ohio alone has grown from 2 million to 4.5 million. There are a lot of reasons: housing and medical costs are up. Unemployment is up, and many jobs that are available are minimum wage. “Our jobs are not high-paying jobs," says Garbo. "In rural America, most of these jobs folks are getting, when they come off of public assistance, are $6- and $7-an-hour jobs - with no benefits, by the way.”

The key issue is the working poor. Forty percent of the families in these lines have one parent working. Rick Payne is working full time at a big home improvement store. But he’s supporting a wife and four kids on $7.50 an hour. When we sat down with Payne, his wife, Alexis, and 12-year-old, Brandon, they had $17 to their name. Payne says he needs gas, diapers, milk and bread. For other expenses, he has little money. The Paynes get food stamps - $300 a month. That much lasts about three weeks. But at the end of the month they’re living on potato soup. “It’s funny, I sit and watch these news programs and they tell you to have six months of your income saved. And I just have to laugh at that because you know, I can’t put $5 away per paycheck. I can’t imagine somebody having six months of their salary put away. That’s just completely unobtainable for us,” Payne says.

Almost half the people fed by these lines are kids. The Agriculture Department figures that one in six children in America face hunger. That’s more than 12 million kids. Nationwide, children have the highest poverty rate. Crystal Theobold needs food for two sons. Her boyfriend Toby Pederson recently lost his job as a heavy equipment operator. He gets unemployment, $100 a week, and food stamps come to $200 a month. So they stretch. They buy whole milk and cut it with an equal amount of water. “It makes milk last longer. Because the baby right now, he needs milk. He don't know the difference yet,” she says.

Most of the people in line don’t look like they are starving. We noticed some were even overweight. But hunger in America isn’t starvation, it’s malnutrition - children too hungry to concentrate in school, and the pain of skipped meals.
There may be some in line who are taking unfair advantage of a free food program even if they have to wait for hours. But it is also true that many in these lines are new to hunger: losing jobs or getting hit with medical bills, for example, just months or weeks ago.

At another line, in McArthur, Ohio, the holidays were closing in and so was the weather. The line is 40 percent longer than it was just three years ago. Nationwide, the problem is not just in rural scenes like this. The U.S. Conference on Mayors says the need for emergency food aid in major cities jumped 19 percent in 2002 year alone.

Billie Jo Smith and her children live outside McArthur, Ohio. They’re new to hunger. Her husband was the sole breadwinner but the marriage broke up a few months ago, and now the money’s gone. The kids are on a free school lunch program and, often, 12-year-old Shane brings part of that meal home. Shane, Billy Jo, Joey, and Jenny are living on $700 a month in welfare and food stamps. Sometimes Jenny doesn’t eat at all between lunches. "It's terrible. I usually wait until the next day to go to school and eat," she says.

“I’ll tell you in all honesty I sense a fear. It’s a fear," says Garbo. "We talk about terror nowadays. The real terror is fear. And if you really get to visit with families who are really up against it, there’s a fear.” For now, the Paynes are earning a little extra money cleaning up their church. “That’s the difference between making it, you know, if we was to lose that portion of our income that would be $65 a week - don’t sound like a lot of money but it is,” says Rick Payne.

Billy Jo Smith is banking on a good education to lift her children out of poverty. The kids are good at math but, still, school is a struggle. Jenny says hunger makes her fall asleep sometimes at school: "I can't concentrate half the time. Sometimes, I'm really weak in class."

Crystal Theobold is starting school herself, trying to become a nurse. She wants more kids, but she will not. “I had my tubes tied. It was get your tubes tied or worry about another mouth to feed. So we did it." What does she hope for her family? "A better life," she says. "Whole milk."

Looking at the food line, Bob Garbo says, "This is it, and you’ll see this pretty well all over the country probably.” “We’ve gone backwards,” he continues. “This is what I heard from my mom and dad. This is what it was during the Depression era. That people stood in line to get government commodities. We haven’t come very far, have we?”

After our story first aired, some of the families we interviewed received generous donations from our viewers. And because of those donations, a few of them told us they no longer need food assistance. But in Ohio, the lines continue to grow. In the first three months of this year, the lines jumped by nearly 20 percent with over 200,000 more families standing in line for food.

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