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Hunger In The Midst Of Plenty
Area Food Banks Find Need Increases Even As Jobless Rate Drops

By Kenton Robinson Day Staff Columnist, Enterprise Reporter/Columnist
Published on 11/28/2004

“People who are pushed closer to the edge are forced to go to the food bank. Because when you have kids that are hungry, you've got to do something. Oil stays up, gas stays up, and wages haven't changed. We're subsidizing employers who aren't paying a living wage.”

Paul Jakoboski, president of the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London

Griswold -- The first time he had to ask for help from the local food pantry, Frank Wojtcuk felt guilty.

“I know there's people worse off than we are, that could use it,” he said. “And I didn't want to deprive anybody of it.”

The son of Polish immigrants, he worked hard all his life. He served in the first American bomber group to be stationed in Great Britain during World War II. And when he came home with a “war bride” on his arm, he supported her by working at a printing plant.

Today, as he and Sybil, the woman he met at The Rope and Anchor pub “so many years ago,” look forward to their 59th wedding anniversary, Wojtcuk says that if it weren't for the food bank at St. Mary's Church in Jewett City, there would be times they would go hungry.

“Well, you see, you work and save yourself a little money for your old age. And now, what you do, whatever you saved, you've got to take it out because you've got to pay for everything,” said Wojtchuk, who is 83. “It's kind of rough that way, you know. The country, that's the way it's made.”

From where Paul Jakoboski sits, there's something wrong with that picture.

Jakoboski is vice president of the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London, which is responsible for making sure that some 26,000 men, women and children in New London County don't go to bed hungry each night.

It is hunger in the midst of plenty.

For the past three years, the state of Connecticut has had the highest average adjusted gross income - $64,724 in 2002 - in the nation. At the same time, the greater New London area has had one of the lowest rates of unemployment - currently 3.7 percent.

And yet, over that same period, the center, which supplies food to 65 soup kitchens, daycare centers, homeless shelters and community pantries, has seen the need for food grow by 107 percent.

In 2002, the center distributed 870,000 pounds of food. This year, it is on track to distribute 1,200,000 pounds. Demand next year is expected to reach 1,800,000 pounds.

It's becoming increasingly difficult for the center to collect enough food to meet the demand.

“It's a hand-to-mouth operation,” Jakoboski said. “It's a day-by-day war we fight.”

The reason for that apparent paradox is an economy where the cost of living has risen steadily while incomes have not.

For people like the Wojtcuks, the ever-increasing costs of everything from heating oil to car insurance to prescription drugs don't leave a lot of money for food.

But the fastest-growing clientele at the region's soup kitchens and food banks are working families.

“People who are pushed closer to the edge are forced to go to the food bank,” Jakoboski said. “Because when you have kids that are hungry, you've got to do something. Oil stays up, gas stays up, and wages haven't changed. We're subsidizing employers who aren't paying a living wage.”

Gemma E. Moran, who founded the center 16 years ago and is its director today, puts it another way. “The economy and the rising prices are the killers of the average working poor,” she said. “Right now we're experiencing working men and women with their families using the soup kitchens, so we try to maintain their self-respect and dignity by having nice soup kitchens and good meals.”

Thus far, Moran and Jakoboski say, they have managed to scrape together the food they need each week to meet the demand, but they worry about reaching the breaking point.

“I've been involved in United Way about 25 years,” said Janet Pearce, the president of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, “and very honestly one of the things I've watched is our food center go from basically a mom-and-pop store to a very professional operation where the demand is increasing at a rate that we're not going to keep up.”

For example, while the center had enough food to get through the Thanksgiving holiday, there's a lot of concern about what happens now, the week after.

“The week after Thanksgiving, people are going to need just as much food as they need the week of Thanksgiving,” Jakoboski said.

“There is a lot of generosity at this time of year, but people need to remember that hunger is a year-round problem. It's not a holiday problem,” Pearce said. “In January and February, we'll really be low at that point if trends continue.”

As Moran sees it: “We are our brother's keeper. We are obligated to feed our neighbors and friends.”

•••

Some statistics indicate that, while Connecticut is the richest state in the union, it might also be one of the stingiest.

According to The Generosity Index, an annual ranking of states' charitable giving put together by the Massachusetts-based Ellis L. Phillips Foundation, the average itemized charitable contribution in Connecticut was $3,280 in 2002, the most recent year for which figures were available.

That represents 5 percent of average adjusted gross income, making Connecticut number 44 in a ranking of the 50 states when it comes to giving to charity.

By comparison, Mississippi, the poorest state in the union, ranked number 1, a position it has held for the past eight years.

The average adjusted gross income in Mississippi in 2002 was $33,754, and the average itemized charitable contribution was $4,484, or 13 percent of income.

Connecticut and Mississippi represent a national pattern: People in the richest states tend to be the stingiest, while those in the poorest states are the most generous, at least when it comes to this particular index measurement.

People who work in charity have different explanations for this phenomenon.

“I think that the people who are poorer realize how thin a line there is between them and the truly needy,” Jakoboski said, “and they share what they have with those in need.”

Pearce concurs.

“The cleaning ladies and working people seem to be the most generous,” she said. “So generous sometimes, that we'll say, ‘Are you sure you want to give this much?' Because we feel like we're stealing from them. And they always give us a story about how when they were homeless someone helped them out.”

On the other hand, Pearce said, “People with money don't see themselves as likely recipients of charity.” If they've never known hardship, she said, they might think: “If they just worked harder, they wouldn't need it.”

But, Pearce said, “There are people at Electric Boat who are hungry. And there are people at Pfizer that are hungry. ... At every major industry in town. They work at every place you can imagine. You can't just say it's one industry or employer.”

Others dispute that Connecticut is as stingy as the index suggests. It is based on itemized deductions on federal tax forms, they say, but not everybody itemizes.

“I suspect that many folks in Connecticut are extremely generous and giving, and a lot of us just don't document it,” said Susan Eisenhandler, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut's Waterbury campus.

She compared it with looking at the thermometer before leaving the house in the morning.

“What could it be telling us?” Eisenhandler said. “It's telling us something about the temperature, but it doesn't tell us what it's really like out there.”

Nancy Roberts, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, has another explanation.

“It has to do with the New England culture,” she said. “The state grew up with a Congregational church in every town, and everyone took care of their own communities but not the bigger communities.”

That narrow focus, she said, gives rise to the phenomenon in which “people living in the cities who see the need are likely to be more generous than people isolated in the suburbs.”

When the council did a town-by-town study of giving in Connecticut five years ago, Roberts said, “Hartford was one of the top towns in giving, but only 11 percent of those people itemized.”

•••

At the food center, the high demand often results in shortages of essentials.

The center receives food from a lot of sources: surplus foods from the federal Department of Agriculture; so-called “salvage” foods from local supermarkets, which donate it rather than throw it out; and donations from local food drives, businesses and individuals.

The warehouse floor last week was getting sparse as “shoppers” from the area's food banks and soup kitchens carted off food for Thanksgiving week.

Meanwhile, there were pallets of boxes of powdered milk, and, from the USDA, stacks and stacks of boxes of dried cherries.

“How do you survive on dried cherries?” Jakoboski asked.

The basics that the center always needs, Jakoboski said, are “mac and cheese, tuna fish, peanut butter, canned vegetables, canned soups, and any type of pasta or rice, and cereal. We're always in need of cereals.”

A lot of what is needed, he said, are foods that “a 9-year-old can fix for a 5-year-old” while they're waiting for their parents to come home from work.

For her part, Moran has come up with something she calls the “can-a-month plan.”

“If employees could bring one can a month in their lunch pails, and you have an establishment of a thousand workers, you have a thousand cans of food a month,” Moran said. “Electric Boat is doing this successfully, and they average thousands of pounds a year by the employees themselves donating one can a month. ... My dream would be if every company in the area could do that.”

In Griswold, Frank Wojtcuk explains that he and his wife are grateful for the food pantry. He says because his wife is blind he does all the cooking.

“I do the best I can,” he said. “I try to get away with big homemade dinners of everything in one pot.”

“I call them resurrections,” Sybil said.

Frank and Sybil Wojtcuk laugh..

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