Ithaca, N.Y. — The Food Bank of the Southern Tier saw requests for help surge by 25 percent when the Great Recession struck.

Food pantries were flooded by people who had recently lost their jobs. Former volunteers started coming in to get help for themselves.

Officials at the time thought that “this was a temporary thing … that these people will figure it out,” said Natasha Thompson, president of the Southern Tier Food Bank, in an interview this week.

But the numbers didn’t decline in 2009. They didn’t decline in 2010, either — and then 2011 proved much of the same.

Now, about six years after what was supposed to be an extraordinary crisis, food bank officials are facing a stark reality: Requests for help are actually up five percent from the worst of the recession.

All told, it amounts to a 30 percent increase in need from our region’s struggling citizens — with no end in sight.

“It was a very challenging time,” Thompson said, “and then it became the new normal.”

Courtesy of the food bank.

On Wednesday, Mayor Svante Myrick joined several other regional mayors for an event at the food bank.

The Voice has written an explainer to help you understand problems in food security and how they are affecting the Southern Tier.

1 – How many people in the Southern Tier go hungry?
2 – Wow, 1 in 4 sounds like a lot. How does that compare with national statistics?
3 – How many people in Tompkins County go hungry? How many children?
4 – How has that changed recently?
5 – What is being done about the problem? 
6 – How has Ithaca been successful in its efforts to fight hunger?
7 — Is the problem that there’s not enough food?
8 – Why did Mayor Myrick go to Elmira on Wednesday?
9 – What are some of the biggest misconceptions about food insecurity?
10 – What can I do to help?
11 – You are a boring writer! Can I just have Matt Damon explain this to me?

Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.


1 – How many people in the Southern Tier go hungry?

Experts don’t have a precise answer to this question. But a slew of available data allows them to extrapolate rough estimates.

One in four people in the region — which encompasses Steuben, Chemung, Tioga, Broome, Schuyler and Tompkins counties — receives some form of assistance from the food bank. (The number is derived from a national study by Feeding America.)

One idea is that — while not a perfect estimate — the one-in-four figure shows the level of what experts call “food insecurity” in the region.

If residents use the food bank for assistance, the idea goes, they’re likely doing so because they don’t have another means of getting enough food. And the one-in-four figure does not account for those who go hungry and don’t go to the food bank out of embarrassment or other reasons.

Thompson, the food bank president, said officials also look at how many people are at 185 percent of the federal poverty level in the area.

“When we’re talking hunger in the Southern Tier we’re talking food insecurity — a family at any given time that may or may not have enough of their own resources to feed themselves nutritionally appropriate meals,” Thompson said.

185 percent of the federal poverty level translates into an income of about $44,000 for a family of four.

Even with that income level, “and paying for things like health insurance and rent, what’s left over may or may not be enough to feed their family,” Thompson said.

167,000 people of the 500,000 in the region — or about 33 percent — fall at or below that threshold, Thompson said.


2 – Wow, 1 in 4 sounds like a lot. How does that compare with national statistics?

Officials say the national average is one in seven Americans receives food bank assistance.

By comparison, one in every four in the Southern Tier receives assistance. It’s 44 percent higher here than nationally.

Thompson spoke about the disappearance of higher-paying jobs from much of the Southern Tier.

“Hunger is a symptom of a much larger issue, which is poverty,” Thompson said.

“You have a lot of jobs that are not as high paying as they used to be.”

Here’s how the number of unemployed people and the unemployment rate have changed by area, according to government statistics:

Binghamton (2007): 5,700 unemployed; 4.5 percent
Binghamton (2014): 7,400 unemployed; 6.6 percent

Elmira (2007): 1,900 unemployed; 4.8 percent
Elmira (2014): 2,400 unemployed; 6.4 percent

Ithaca (2007): 1,900 unemployed; 3.3 percent
Ithaca (2014): 2,300 unemployed; 4.1 percent

The unemployment rate nationally is 6.1 percent. It’s higher than that in Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga, Broome and Steuben counties. Only Tompkins County has a lower unemployment rate.


3 – How many people in Tompkins County go hungry? How many children?

Here are the numbers given by the food bank about Tompkins County:
— 13.1% of 101,570 people have “food insecurity.”
— 18.4% of children — or 3,040 kids — have food insecurity in the county.
— An estimated 13,280 individuals in Tompkins County are “food insecure.”
— Tompkins County residents had 168,376 requests for food.
— Almost 60,000 of those were for children.

Mayor Svante Myrick characterized hunger in Ithaca as a serious problem.

“Every day we have soup kitchens operating in the city, and every day hours before they open you can see the families lined up on the block just to make sure they get a hot meal,” Myrick said in an interview Thursday morning.

“I’m sure people are lined up right now.”

Even with the county and city’s relatively robust economic growth, Myrick said, many workers still struggle mightily to adequately feed their families.

“Unemployment claims go down, but (people are) still on food stamps and they’re still on welfare because the jobs they have don’t put them over the threshold,” Myrick said.

Ithaca’s Loaves & Fishes, the soup kitchen, said about 7 percent of the people it serves are children.


4 – How has that changed recently?

Loaves & Fishes has seen a 15 percent increase in requests for meals since 2010.

“Unfortunately, the need for our free meal program continues to increase steadily and significantly,” the soup kitchen’s annual report states.

Precise statistics are hard to come by. Feeding America changed its methodology in its most recent study, making historical comparisons difficult, said the food bank’s Jonathan E. Fuller, community and public relations managers.

Still, because the food bank provides local food pantries with their supplies, food bank officials can gain a good sense of the trendlines.

“A lot of our agencies are reporting 40, 50, 60 percent increases in just this past year,” Fuller said.

Thompson, as mentioned above, said there’s been a 30 percent increase in requests since before the recession.

In a statement, the United Way of Tompkins County said that it has seen “an increase over the past several years in the number of individuals and families accessing food pantries and community meals, as well as increased demand for personal care items.”

“Our partners serve a diverse population that crosses socio-economic groups, and have seen increased requests from individuals and families who have not sought assistance in the past,” the statement said.


5 – What is being done about the problem?

Here’s a short and likely incomplete list of initiatives being led to combat hunger in the region:

— The food bank is involved in “almost every” school in the region, Thompson said.

— Introduced in the 2000s, a backpack program run by the food bank gives children a bag full of nutritious food every Friday.

“Many children who receive free and reduced priced school meals are left without the nutrition they need on weekends and holiday breaks when school is not in session,” the food bank website states.

“The BackPack Program attempts to reduce this gap and help children return to school on Monday ready to learn.”

2,075 children receive a pack each week.

— Introduced in 2007, mobile food pantries have also recently been set up across the Southern Tier.

The food bank website explains: “The Mobile Food Pantry is a converted beverage truck used to deliver fresh produce, dairy products, and other food and grocery products directly to distribution sites where people need food. When the truck arrives at a site, volunteers place the food on tables surrounding the truck. The clients are then able to “shop”, choosing items that they need.”

314,265 pounds were distributed through 10 mobile food pantries in Tompkins County alone.

— September is Hunger Action Month, a food bank effort to raise awareness among local officials and citizens about food security problems in the Southern Tier.

— The United Way of Tompkins County provides emergency assistance during the holiday season to various local food pantries.

— An assortment of other events — such as those hosted at Ithaca College and Wegmans — also helps raise money.

— Driving down poverty, generally, though this gets into a broader topic.

“We’re trying to look at not only feeding the line but what we can do to shorten the line,” Thompson said, mentioning activities geared toward alleviating poverty.

Food drives only go so far, Thompson said.

“We’re definitely doing more advocacy and want to continue to do more of that. We’re not the only answer,” Thompson said.


6 – How has Ithaca been successful in its efforts to fight hunger?

Fuller, of the food bank, spoke of a huge number of local donors that have been helpful for the food bank’s efforts in Ithaca.

“We’ve had a lot of success in Ithaca and Tompkins County,” he said.

“It’s not that easy for us every place we go, but we have a lot of terrific advocates in the Ithaca community.”

Fuller in particular highlighted a summer food program for hungry kids.

Ithaca has “really been a success story” — 29 percent of kids who qualify for a free or reduced price lunch are participating, according to Fuller.

In Chemung, the number is closer to 10 percent of eligible kids. The average is about 19 percent across the region.

“Tompkins is doing some great things,” Thompson agreed, mentioning the food pantry network in the county.

“There’s also a lot being done in the food justice realm that’s not being done in the rest of the region.”

Healthy Food for All, a partnership of family-owned farms and Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County to make fresh seasonal produce accessible to poor families, is also active locally.


7 — Is the problem that there’s not enough food?

Partly. Thompson said one issue is that the grocery “industry is becoming better and better at controlling its waste.”

Another is that — across the country — emergency food network have been traditionally  volunteer-run, often church-based endeavors.

“They’re limited in their capacity. They don’t have big budgets or lots of staff and they’re making do with what they have,” Thompson said.

Some food pantries are very small and only open once a month. Other pantries close when the few volunteers who supported it get sick, die or move away.

That makes effective distribution a thorny, complex problem for officials to tackle. And it makes it difficult to know how much demand would avail itself if the supply rose.

“In a rural community like ours, hunger is hidden,” Thompson said.


8 – Why did Mayor Myrick go to Elmira on Wednesday?

Mayors can’t have a regional legislative impact. But gathering several mayors from across the region this week allowed the food bank to show them how to be more aware of the food bank and the work it does in their communities, according to Thompson.

The message to the mayors, according to Thompson, was: “Be aware of the issue of child hunger; work with your school superintendent to find out what they’re doing about school breakfast, school lunch …,” Thompson said.

“Help us spread the word.”

Myrick in Elmira.

9 – What are some of the biggest misconceptions about food insecurity?

Several officials, including Mayor Myrick, said a big misconception surrounding food insecurity revolves around seniors.

“Seniors are a huge issue,” Thompson said. “They’re a hard to reach demographic and they’re growing.”

Thompson highlighted the role of the mobile food trucks that go into areas with seniors — including Titus Towers in Ithaca — and hand out food.

“They’ll go without food and stretch what they can … sometimes with serious consequences for their health,” Thompson said of seniors.

Myrick said that senior hunger tends to be underreported.

“A lot of senior citizens are going hungry and folks don’t realize,” he said.

“As life expectancy rises, the social security benefit has stayed frozen (and) you have more and more senior citizens living in poverty.”


10 – What can I do to help?

Here’s a link to where you can donate to the food bank.
Here’s a link to how you can volunteer with the food bank.

“I would encourage folks to consider volunteering,” Thompson said.

“Educate yourself about the issue and figure out a way to get involved. Everyone has a strength to share in this effort.”


11 – You are a boring writer! Can I just have Matt Damon explain this to me?

Hey, that’s not very nice. But sure:


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.