May 9th, 2008
08:06 PM ET

Their Cupboards Are Bare

Erica Hill

Erica Hill
360° Correspondent

Does your neighbor have enough to eat? Can they afford milk, fresh vegetables for their kids?

Yes, the people next door who look just like you...they have a mortgage, one - maybe two - cars, and a mounting pile of bills they can't pay.

There are 35 million Americans at risk of going hungry tonight, and they're not all homeless or unemployed. The "new" hungry Americans are educated, middle-class folks - many have full-time jobs - and their cupboards are bare.

Here in NYC, the main food bank for the five boroughs has seen a 73 percent increase in people with full-time jobs coming in for help. Food pantries are their last resort, but many are too proud or to embarrassed to let anyone know they need the help.

I was at a food pantry in Stamford, CT yesterday where one woman told me she couldn't speak to me on camera because there it was too risky; one of her friends might recognize her.

One of the staff members there told me she saw a person from another town come through the line, clearly there to avoid being seen. She also pointed out two men who had "dressed down", trying to blend in.

In Brooklyn on Tuesday, we met a woman who personifies this crisis. She was stunning - totally put together, attractive...you'd expected to see her having lunch at the table next to you. She had a successful career as an administrative assistant before retiring a few years ago. She never thought she'd need help, but there she was at the pantry. It was her second trip, and she seemed so ashamed. She was incredibly gracious and kind, but she, too, didn’t dare get near the camera for fear someone would learn her secret.

There is, of course, nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, but I can understand why any of these people would feel that way. You work your whole life, do all the right things, pay your bills, go to work...only to find that it's not enough anymore to put food on the table.

Tomorrow, postal carriers around the country will hold the 16th annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive. This is a chance for ALL of us to help. One box of cereal or pasta, a few cans of vegetables, a jar of pasta sauce can do so much.

I have one plea before you empty your cabinets: only donate items you would eat. Expired canned goods and other inedible items increasingly find their way into the donation bin.

"The quality of the food is dropping in some respects," Kate Lombardo, Executive Director of the Lowe Fairfield County (CT) Food Bank told me. "Which is not to offend the donor, it’s just to express to donors that if you don’t want it on your table, then the poor are not any less of an individual or human being just because they‘re poor. They’re just in a financial state that they don’t want to be in."

For more information on the food drive, log onto Help Stamp Out Hunger.

Filed under: Economy • Erica Hill • Food crisis
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. dv

    Was channel surfing and saw your report on the food bank. I work in an emergency room and find it surprising that people can afford a pack a day of cigarettes, cable television, cell phones and alcohol, but have a problem with medication or health insurance.

    Why not do the reporter thing and actually breakdown a budget of a random selection of people using the food bank. Not some selected sad case but just randomly pick 3-4 people a day and look at bank statements, disability payments, under the table payouts and then give us a good report.

    The reason those people didn't want their faces seen was because they're scamming. Why not follow up on the story. See how many of the people have cable television? How many have cell phones? If you want a stark contrast on "poor unfortunate people" compare the "poor people" of New York with the "poor people" of Myanmar, or even of the troops that are unloading the supplies. That I saw on the next story.

    Notice we've got the only country in the world with FAT poor people. Thanks to the environmentalist we're using food that is cheap to make fuel that is more harmful to the environment and starves poor people in third world countries.

    May 9, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  2. Susan


    Thanks for the reminder on the Stamp Out Hunger Program. It does not cost a lot for each of us to give a little to those less fortunate. We may be in that position one day. I believe that good karma brings good karma.


    May 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm |
  3. Laura in West Virginia

    Good evening Erica,

    As much as I hate to say it, I agree with Monika. I am partially disabled, don't get food stamps, and so I use food banks only when I have to (though it galls me terrribly to know my $600 a month job can't keep my bills paid), and it would really exasperate me to see somebody driving up in an SUV to get free food. This free food is supposed to be feeding the hungrey, not cutting the costs of some surburbanites who still want to live large. I know this is happening: I have in mind a family member who makes 50 grand between her job and child support who used to hit every food bank she could. On payday, she'd buy 4 or 5 $5.00 packages of pre-cooked meatballs...as far as I know, she's still doing this. Meanwhile, all the time I see the poor from my food bank being turned away. Food banks are for the hungry, they should be used with discretion. I mean, how low can a person go...?

    May 9, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  4. Mari, Salt Lake City

    This is a tragedy, in the wealthiest country on earth! For years, Americans have been living beyond their means, trying to emulate the "celebs' the watch on TV and read about in the tabloids!

    However, reality is now hitting. I fear this is just the beginning. Our government is in debt $10 TRILLION dollars........ why not the average family?

    Its time we WAKE UP! I am not surprised in the least.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:40 pm |
  5. linda., bella vista, ar

    This is sooooooo tragic.
    Thx for talking about it.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:39 pm |
  6. Monika

    I'm sorry, Erica, but I don't feel that the food banks should give out food to the people you mentioned, the educated, middle-class people with full-time jobs. If they can't afford to put food on the table, then they are living beyond their means. Having bought or built a house that's way too big, driving gas-guzzling SUVs or luxury cars, having tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debts and not paying them off, having too many expensive toys, etc. etc. Yes, they should very well be ashamed for not handling their finances more responsibly!

    But food banks never were meant for people like them. They were meant for people who DON'T have jobs, who scrape by on government assistance, who may have temporarily fallen on hard times (due to sickness or death in the family, outrageous medical bills etc.) or who are otherwise not able to take care of themselves (due to a disability or mental illness).

    People who have well-paying jobs don't belong in a food bank. If you earn a middle-class income, you should be able to pay your bills with ease and even put money away for savings every month.

    As far as quality food is concerned, well, I don't know about New York, but where I live, if you are poor, you are expected to accept out-of-date food stuffs because that's usually all there is. This includes week-old bread and other baked goods which are donated by the local grocery store AFTER they are no longer sellable.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:32 pm |
  7. Karen Fulster

    As a senior, on a fixed income, I can't seem to pay my utilities,food and have even given up my old car. It's not fun to walk for groceries when your body hurts.
    Karen in Illinois

    May 9, 2008 at 9:20 pm |
  8. Marion

    I do know that some families are finding it hard to buy food and pay biils because inflation is growing faster than people's pay. One thing that really ticks me off is people using food stamps, buying sirlion steaks and junk food then loading it into a new Cadillac suv and driving off. This woman was also wearing designer clothing, shoes and purse. I have been told that when people ask for a food stamp card, there is absolutely no follow-up to see if they really need the help. Reason-the cost for investigation is too high.
    Many churches have food banks and no questions are asked about family finances. First come, first serve, regardless of need. Sometimes the ones who really need it are left out.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  9. Fay, CA

    Many people in this country are going through unexpected tough times, but I'm wondering if some of those same individuals who need assistance now were the types who had little sympathy and plenty of scorn for the poor and disadvantaged people who may have sought similar help. It just goes to show that it can happen to almost anyone.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:09 pm |
  10. deborah,OH

    Thanks for the reminder, Erica! I left a couple bags at my friend's house in town. (I live WAY OUT in the country.) It's time to help our neighbors and friends, because these days, that's who needs the help. Even though you might not know it.
    And, of course, Happy Mother's Day to Erica, & all the moms & grandmas on the 360 blog!

    May 9, 2008 at 9:09 pm |
  11. Barbara-Dalton Ga

    Miss Erica, thank you so much for remembering this very important
    topic. No one should ever have to go hungry in the US or the world.
    Our church does a weekly collection of food and then passes the
    food on to the various shelters. It takes little time and is amazing
    at how much is donated weekly. Just think how much would be
    collected if 1/2 th chuches did this.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:07 pm |
  12. Bill

    When OBAMA is president, this will not be the case. I can't wait till his first days in the white house when ALL Americans will have a Food Stamp Card, regardless of Race, religion, or income. COME ON OBAMA......!!!

    May 9, 2008 at 9:03 pm |
  13. YesWeCan


    This is what they "don't get". Bush, and the Iraq decision, has left even the good hard working class in despair. The system needs drastic change. Old ways will not work. That is why people need to take action, and unify for America's sake. NAFTA has left Americans high and dry under the constraints of pollution control, and higher wages, that our trade partners do not have to contend with. While working with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, I found that just the State of Michigan was losing the small to mid-sized farms at an alarming rate. I am sure that other States were, too. The playing field had to be level from the outset, and it was not. Now, they are finally "getting it", though much too late.

    WE need change, and as Barack Obama has said at many a forum, "there is an urgency of now". Tomorrow will be too late.

    May 9, 2008 at 9:00 pm |
  14. Spider

    Well, when he's elected, President Obama will CHANGE all this, I HOPE.

    May 9, 2008 at 8:53 pm |
  15. Lilibeth

    Hi Erica, thanks for posting this on the blog. Yes, every year, my husband and I go through our cupboards to fill up the plastic bags given to us by our postal carriers for the Stamp Out Hunger food drive. It is hard to believe that more and more Americans can’t afford food anymore. When I first immigrated to this country 20+ years ago, one of the first things I noticed was how cheap the food was. In my country of origin, food was so expensive that we had to ration our portions to make sure we had enough to eat the next day. Some days, we didn’t even know if we will have food on the table. Then we came to the States and were relieved that we don’t have to worry about food anymore. And now we hear the stories like the ones you mentioned. It is really sad, the state of the economy today. Without question, our next president’s biggest priority would be solving the economic crisis.

    See you tonight.

    Edmonds, Washington

    May 9, 2008 at 8:28 pm |
  16. Renee


    Just filled up my back bag 10 minutes ago and it is at the back door waiting for morning. (Racoons in this part of Florida! Don't want to feed the animals!) Thanks for covering this important event!

    A Happy Mother's Day to Erica and all the mothers and grandmothers of the blog!

    May 9, 2008 at 8:19 pm |
  17. Alexander

    Well, Erica, I notice you're touching on the hunger crisis in the U.S, I believe, personally, this is an issue that has gone unaddressed for much too long, and has not received enough attention in its own right. Hmm. The rising fuel prices are no help either. My two cents.; )

    May 9, 2008 at 8:14 pm |
  18. Jennifer NC

    Hi Erica,
    Thanks so much for the reminder about "Stamp Out Hunger." I am heading to my cabinets now. Have a great weekend.

    May 9, 2008 at 8:11 pm |