MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It wasn't long ago that Rachel Cales volunteered at her church's food pantry, bagging canned goods and emergency provisions for families that had fallen on hard times.
Last May, however, Cales lost her job managing a yogurt shop. Her elder daughter was about to be married and her two teenage children were living at home and looking for work. Suddenly, she couldn't afford the groceries her family needed, and she had to turn to the pantry for help.
"I never thought we'd have to ask anyone for food," said Cales, who lives on a tree-lined street in eastern Memphis, in a two-story house with prim blue shutters.
She's far from alone. This Southern city, long famous for blues and barbecue, has earned a grim new distinction: the hunger capital of the United States.
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As more and more Americans struggle to pay their bills, a recent survey co-sponsored by Gallup found that 26 percent of people in greater Memphis couldn't afford to buy the food their families needed at some point over the previous 12 months, the highest rate in the nation.
The nationwide recession has compounded the region's economic woes, which experts say stem from the steady decline of family farms, a shortage of skilled workers and few major employers. Slammed with job losses, many middle-class families such as the Caleses find themselves forced to choose whether to pay their house, car, utilities and medical bills — or buy groceries.
"We have seen need grow at certain times, but we have never seen a national economy like this," said Susan Sanford, who's headed the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis for the past two decades. "And we have never seen so many middle-class people lose their jobs and have to depend on emergency food assistance."
Last year, some 186,500 people in 31 Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee counties that surround Memphis relied on agencies for their next meals, a 28 percent increase from four years ago, the food bank reported. Paradoxically, the region also suffers from high rates of obesity, which experts say is the result of families eating cheaper and less nutritious food.
"It's no surprise that this is a very poor area," Sanford said. "But I never would have expected to be No. 1 in food insecurity in the entire country."
'THERE WAS NO WARNING'
Cales never thought she'd be in her position, either. She and her husband, Donald, bought their home seven years ago and felt comfortable enough to spring for a few creature comforts: a big-screen TV, the premium cable package.
While her husband's job as a truck driver covered most of the family's bills, over three years Cales worked her way up to become the manager of a TCBY yogurt shop. Her $13.50 hourly wage gave the family a slight financial cushion, but last May the owner came in and told Cales that her position was being eliminated.
"There was no warning," Cales recalled. "She said I could be a regular employee at $7 an hour ... and I told her, no, I didn't want to do that. So she told me to get my stuff and leave."
Now the premium cable is gone. Cales and her husband shopped around and found a cheaper car insurance policy. Every Friday after he's paid, they huddle around a computer and pay their bills, hoping there's some cash left over.
"Groceries are always last on the list," Cales said. "We pay our house note, pay the bills, get all that stuff out of the way, and sometimes there's just not enough left."
There's always something in the cupboard at home — pasta, maybe, or some instant meals — but when there isn't money for fresh meat and produce, Cales visits the food pantry at her church, Raleigh Assembly of God.
Her husband was reluctant to ask for help at first. Even now, Cales won't take a full bag of free groceries, like the ones she used to pack as a volunteer. She takes just enough to get the family through until her husband's next payday.
With tired eyes, she looked across the living room at her 19-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who was preparing for her wedding by making bouquets of plastic flowers, a cost-saving measure.
"With my income, we were doing it," Cales said. "But without it. ... " Her voice trailed off.
A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM
At Memphis' food pantries — most of which are run by faith-based groups and staffed by volunteers — the demand has never been greater. Any day of the week, families troop in for sacks loaded with an assortment of food, most of it nonperishable: beef ravioli, ramen noodles, pinto beans, canned carrots, peanut butter, chili.
The scenes are playing out nationwide as food shortages become a growing national problem. Feeding America, the country's largest network of emergency food providers, reported that its pantries, soup kitchens and shelters served 37 million Americans last year, a 46 percent jump from 2005.
In a recent national survey, nearly half the group's clients said they had to choose between paying for food and paying their heating or electricity bills. More than one-third of the people it served were children.
The growing demand comes amid a fundamental change in the way that nonprofit food banks operate. For years, regional food banks, the primary suppliers to pantries and kitchens, filled their stockpiles primarily with surplus food donated by giant food manufacturers.
"When I arrived at this food bank 20 years ago, the food that we had to distribute, we just sat here and waited for it to come in," Sanford said. "And there was a lot of it."
As food manufacturers have become more efficient, however, those surpluses are disappearing. In recent years, food banks have had to buy food from brokers and retail stores.
Sanford said that more than 10 percent of the food that was distributed to Memphis pantries and soup kitchens last year was purchased, and that share figures to increase as the recession's impact lingers.
"What we know from studying earlier recessions is that unemployment is a lagging indicator ... and poverty lags unemployment by one or two years at a minimum," said Elaine Waxman, the director of social policy research for Feeding America. "We're not likely to get back to the poverty rates we saw pre-recession for at least the next 10 years."
THE NEW HUNGRY
The profile of hunger has changed dramatically, said Mike Brown, who runs the pantry at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in depressed central Memphis, on a street fringed with boarded-up shops.
"We see people come up (driving) nice cars; people dressed nice," Brown said. "They just don't have the money."
One of the city's "new hungry" is Debra Williams, 45, who was laid off from her job as a school janitor last May after eight years. She lives with her husband and two children in a single-story frame house with a patchy lawn and a rusting Mazda sedan parked in the driveway, its left taillight busted.
Her husband's steel factory job pays $400 per week — barely enough to cover their bills — and they don't qualify for government assistance, she said. Two years ago, the couple declared bankruptcy after running up about $25,000 in credit card debt. Her cell phone had just been cut off and she was debating whether to give up their land line.
She started visiting church food pantries on weeks that their money ran out. She and the children don't have health insurance and haven't seen a doctor in more than a year, so she's tried to ensure that the family eats healthfully: cooking at home almost every night, meat whenever possible and not skipping meals.
"There was a bigger choice" before she lost her job, she said. "Now you have to get what you can afford. You might not have steak; you might have to have chicken two days in a row."
As she searches the want ads fruitlessly, there's one bright spot: Her 16-year-old son, Jordan, just started a job as a cashier at a McDonald's, working after school and on weekends. Whatever he earns he'll keep for himself, Williams said; she'd rather he learn how to manage his own finances. The family will continue to scrape by with help from their church.
"We're living day by day," Williams said, wiping away a tear.
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