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To be food insecure is to not have access to a sustainable amount of nutritious food. To be food insecure is a reality for nearly 16 percent of people in Broward County.
It’s Thanksgiving morning in South Florida. Kids are sleeping in. Ovens are preheating. Relatives are making last-minute Whole Foods runs. Banks are closed. So are law offices and mom-and-pop coffee shops and Nordstroms. People outside have the bearings of burglars: Get what I need and get home. The family is waiting. The food will be ready soon. In strip malls up and down Broward’s busiest streets, the parking lots are mostly empty.
But in Wilton Manors, the parking lot for CSL Plasma is full. Donating plasma is like donating blood, except you get paid for it. The proteins in human plasma are valuable to medical companies, and brokers like CSL make a fortune extracting it from Americans. This is not something you do if you make a decent salary. It’s what you do when there’s nothing left to do—when it’s the end of the month, and it’s either rent or groceries.
“Something is always behind. Something is always past due,” says Dawn Boyd, 47, whose job at BJ’s makes her “the rock” of her family. Her husband is on disability and hates it. “Find me a job that I can do without my back hurting, and I’ll do it,” he tells her. Like 44 million other Americans, they receive food stamps, and the grandkids qualify for free meals from school.
Even then, there’s never enough food.
“Unfortunately I have to get help from EBT [the electronic benefit transfer card for food stamps], but without that, I don’t know what I’d do,” Boyd says.
Her daughter and son-in-law are stopping by CSL for cash. They’ll make less than $50 each. Once, Boyd tried donating, and it made her feel sick.
But tonight, they’ll forget about all that. “The school gave us a turkey, so I bought a ham,” she says. Her husband is home cooking as she speaks. The grandkids are in the van with her, and they list the details of what’s on the menu. It’s going to be a feast today. Tomorrow it’s leftovers. Saturday it’s life.
Food insecurity is difficult to see and easy to ignore. Anybody who’s ever had sticker shock at the grocery store may be able to relate to the anxiety it causes.
But food insecurity isn’t about comparing unit prices for the best deal or opting for Publix-brand salt. It means stocking up on bulk freezer corn dogs and chicken-flavored ramen because they have more calories than fruits and vegetables. It means scarfing down $2 Taco Bell burritos in the rush between jobs. It means mom skipping dinner because the free backpack meal from school isn’t for her. And often, it means hiding the struggle from friends and neighbors because you don’t want to upset them, or you’re ashamed of being so desperate.
How desperate are people in South Florida?
“Some seniors are eating dog food. They have to feed their pet. And, you know, it’s there,” says Mary Macomber, a retired lawyer who’s been advocating against hunger in Broward County for more than 15 years.
Macomber was there when members of the Coordinating Council of Broward first opened its eyes to the scope of the problem locally. It was 2001, the happy tail end of the federal surplus and the dot-com bubble. Around the table was the upper echelon of civic life here: CEOs, hospital executives, the sheriff, the bishop. Marti Forman, executive director of the non-profit Cooperative Feeding Program, gave the presentation that burst their bubble.
“People are starving in Broward,” Forman told them.
Alarmed, the council established the Million Meals Committee to encourage more food programs, and Macomber became the chair. Dissatisfied with its progress, she gave the job to somebody else last year. She doesn’t believe Broward institutions are working together enough to solve food insecurity anymore, especially compared to Palm Beach County where the rate of hunger is lower.
She thinks the name is naive, too. A million meals wouldn’t last Broward two days.
Last spring, 92-year-old Violet Barker told her son, Robert Hart, to leave her alone for a couple of weeks. She said she was just going to “hibernate” in her Boynton Beach mobile home for a little while. So Hart let her be. When he came back to check on her, she was dead. Authorities said Barker starved to death.
True starvation like this is exceedingly rare, and it’s almost always the result of criminal negligence. (Hart, in fact, was charged with aggravated manslaughter.)
Food insecurity manifests in other ways: obesity and diabetes, an inability to concentrate, hypertension and financial anxiety. It’s an affliction of class rather than race, age or gender. But blacks, Hispanics, seniors and households with children are especially vulnerable, according to the USDA.
“People are skipping meals. Choosing which child has breakfast and choosing which child has dinner,” says Sari Vatske, vice president of community relations for Feeding South Florida, which salvages and distributes millions of pounds of food in four counties. “Food insecurity is not knowing where your next meal is coming from.”
And it’s fairly common, affecting about one in seven people in Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to Feeding America’s most recent Map the Meal Gap report.
In Broward County, 15.5 percent of the population—281,940 people—goes days or more without access to enough food to be active and healthy. Palm Beach County’s rate is a bit smaller, with 199,460 people, or 14.7 percent, known to be food insecure. Each of those rates is slightly lower than it was two years prior.
Next door to CSL Plasma is a Dollar General. There’s a man sitting on the sidewalk outside playing a guitar and singing the 1996 Tonic song “If You Could Only See” with the stub of an old pick. He’s wearing Crocs and a tattered ball cap, and he says his name is Timothy Paul Weimer, 50 years old.
He tells fabulous stories about his old days playing rock music. He complains that everyone is copying his songs and stealing his band name. “It’s like, ‘Will the real Garageland band please stand up?’” He relishes the memory of Creed frontman Scott Stapp telling him, “You’ve got a stage presence like Elvis that I wish I had.” Could it be a stretch of the truth? Perhaps. But it likely isn’t when he says this: “I don’t have enough nutritional food.”
Weimer has several health issues that warrant disability benefits totaling $733 a month. A caseworker helped him get free groceries from Publix, but he says the cards don’t let him buy certain things like meat, coffee or dairy products. He doesn’t have help from family because most of them are dead.
“I pray every single day,” he says.
In the 1990s, when Michael Farver was working for the Sun-Sentinel, he attended an anti-hunger event the newspaper was putting on. It changed the course of his career. During the presentation, he was shocked by data showing millions of American children were going to bed hungry.
“It just hit me like being hit in the face by a two-by-four,” says Farver, who left the paper in 2006 to become an advocate for food security. He now heads the South Florida Hunger Coalition. “It’s a travesty. How can that happen in the richest country in the world? How can kids go to bed hungry? We have the food. We have existing programs in the safety net,” he says.
The public food safety net was created during the Great Depression on exactly that premise. On May 16, 1939, a laid-off factory worker in Rochester, New York, named Mabel McFiggan bought surplus butter, eggs and prunes from her local grocer. She was the first person to do so using food stamps. The U.S. government, recognizing an abundance of farm products and rampant hunger in the cities, devised a plan to help Americans purchase surplus food at a discount.
Decades later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964, calling it “one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America’s new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American.”
Today the program looks a bit different and it’s now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the premise is the same: The government gives eligible Americans credit that can be used only to buy food. The program is extremely efficient, especially for a government program, with about 94 percent of the expenditure reaching the beneficiaries. Fraud and trafficking are difficult to track but may affect about one percent of funds, according to the USDA, and punishments for engaging in those activities are severe.
In July 2014, 286,648 people in Broward County and 191,557 people in Palm Beach County received SNAP benefits, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. Generally, fewer people apply for the benefits than are eligible. But for those in the program, research shows the upside is immense. It reduces the likelihood of food insecurity by roughly 30 percent. It reduces the likelihood of families falling behind on other monthly payments. Receiving SNAP in childhood leads to better health in adults and, for women, better economic self-sufficiency.
The main criticism of SNAP is that it doesn’t go far enough. “What’s happening is that the cost of living is going up, but the jobs that are being created are still lower wage,” says Vatske of Feeding South Florida, describing part of the problem. And SNAP amounts aren’t keeping up with the need. For example, a family of three that earns $600 net income per month will receive $331 in SNAP benefits—about $1.23 per person per meal.
“The allotment typically carries even the most careful of families only three-quarters or four-fifths of the way through the month,” the non-profit Food Research & Action Center, or FRAC, reported in 2015.
And some groups of people are excluded from eligibility entirely, including people on strike and unauthorized immigrants. Single people without children or disabilities are also limited.
The main activities of groups like Vatske’s and Farver’s are to identify gaps and try to close them. Is there a community without a nearby food pantry? Are there immobile seniors living uncared for in food deserts? Are there children hungry on Sunday night because their last decent meal was 11 a.m. on Friday in the school cafeteria?
“What’s challenging, and yet drives me, is that hunger is a solvable problem,” Farver says.
It can be agreed on that food redistribution is a Band-Aid, but because of it, the U.S. has virtually eradicated the severe malnutrition common in developing countries. As much as food insecurity is a symptom of poor economic conditions, the cure will come in the form of broad structural changes, like better wages and lower unemployment.
But local advocates believe there are plenty of systemic reforms that don’t take an act of Congress. For example, in January, Feeding South Florida opened a new warehouse in Boynton Beach that will eventually crank out 21,000 meals a day. That’s just the Band-Aid side. The cure is the work training and nutrition education programs happening simultaneously. Feeding South Florida will train people for food service jobs and even offer them space to start their own catering businesses.
“Our new facility in Palm Beach County is more than just food distribution,” Vatske says. “We’re moving to a place where we look to break the root cause of hunger.”
It’s a monumental problem, and this is a relatively small program. In FRAC’s report, “A Plan of Action to End Hunger in America,” the group calls for strengthening the federal nutrition programs, addressing problems like wage stagnation and breaking down false narratives about the kinds of people receiving food benefits. Periodically food stamps come under attack from politicians, but experts say the program has avoided reductions because it’s so effective. In February, however, President Donald Trump proposed cutting the SNAP budget, though details weren’t clear at press time. In any case, a funding increase doesn’t appear likely.
If communities want change, it’s up to them.
It’s afternoon now on Thanksgiving. At the McDonald’s on Broward Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale, there’s a man in ragged clothes sitting by the front door bumming change. His name is John Damato. In 1969, when he was 18, he was drafted into the Army. When he came home from Vietnam three years later, he drifted around like a lot of guys did back then. At 23 or 24, working odd jobs and sleeping outside isn’t so bad. But eventually you turn 66 and your body hurts. You’re not a young drifter anymore; you’re just homeless drinking Colt 45 in a McDonald’s parking lot.
He declined an offer for a hamburger. And when a man in an SUV parked nearby and offered Damato a plate, he declined that, too. And then about a half hour after that, a car stopped in the middle of Brickell Avenue. The window inched down, and a young man shouted, “You guys all right? We’ve got some food.” Damato graciously declined.
Between churches, pantries and kind strangers, he says, he never skips a meal.