Photograph by Steven Higgs
Mother Hubbard's Cupboard Executive Director Brooke Gentile said the number of people seeking groceries from the food pantry doubled in April. While the historic trend for hunger in Bloomington is up, she cites the recent rises in fuel and food as the causes of the recent spike.
Food prices rise. Gas prices grow to record highs almost daily. And Mother Hubbard's Cupboard's (MHC) client base is increasing with them.
"Peoples budgets are getting stretched farther," said MHC Executive Director Brooke Gentile. "The rising costs are making it harder on them."
MHC is a food pantry that provides for community members in need. It focuses on healthy and wholesome food to provide nutrition to its clients. In 2007, the pantry aided an average of 1,450 individuals per week and filled 75,017 grocery bags.
MHC served 161 new clients in March. In April that number more than doubled to 335. Gentile believes this growth is attributed to the rise of gas and food prices. She said these increases affect families that are living close to the poverty level.
"Because of the rise in food and gas prices more people are having trouble meeting expenses," said Gentile. "More people are at risk of experiencing poverty."
Mother Hubbard's receives food from Hoosier Hills Food Bank (HHFB), a Bloomington-based nonprofit that collects food from grocery stores, food distributors, restaurants, food service establishments and food drives. HHFB distributes the food to more than 80 nonprofit organizations in six counties.
Hoosier Hills Executive Director Julio Alonso said it is too early to determine if any of his organization's member agencies are seeing the same kind of dramatic increase in need that Mother Hubbard's has experienced. But he noted that the historical trend has been upward, and he expects the trajectory to continue.
"I hope it's not a long-term trend, but my fear is that things are going to get worse before they get better," he said. "I don't see gas or food prices dropping. They continue to go up."
Joel Rekas is executive director at the Shalom House, which provides meals and other services for Bloomington's homeless. Shalom, a nonprofit that operates out of the First United Methodist Church at Fourth and Washington Streets, began in 2000.
Rekas said his agency has seen demand for meals rise 37 percent in the first four months this year.
Shalom is one of Hoosier Hills' partner agencies.
Alonso agreed with Gentile that rising food and fuel costs are impacting all of his member agencies.
"I think we're seeing more and more people," he said. Food from Mother Hubbard's or the Community Kitchen "is accessible to a lot of people, where the money to pay their gas bill may not be."
Although Mother Hubbard's numbers for March and April increased dramatically, Gentile said she isn't expecting the same increase for May and isn't sure if the number of new clients will stay high. However, she does believe there is a general trend in citizens needing assistance.
"More and more people are losing their jobs," she said. "Also, medical costs are cutting into food budgets. Some people are relying on us because they need to pay for those expenses."
Despite the fact that more clients are losing their jobs, Gentile said clients are also coming in who are working and have an income. Increasing household costs make it harder for these clients to afford expenses. She believes more community members are at risk of losing their jobs and homes.
"You can tell a lot of new clients are hesitant about being here," she said. "They're like, 'But I have a job.'"
Many citizens who are new to MHC have two to three jobs, but their income isn't enough to help pay for the rising costs of almost everything, Gentile added.
"I think we're seeing a lot of people who are working but just not making enough at what they do to sustain themselves on a regular basis," he said. "When you're at that level and food and gas prices start going up, you start making choices."
To help fix this growing problem, local officials need to continue looking at ways to nurture local and affordable food and housing systems, Gentile said. While these things are already happening, the effort needs to be greater.
"Bloomington officials have been really great in supporting all of the agencies," said Gentile. "But when need rises, the effort to help needs to as well."
Gentile also believes the community can help by planting and growing its own food. MHC gives out free seeds and directions on how to grow your own food. She said community members can plant an extra row and donate it, or even store it themselves for the winter.
"I'm really inspired by the victory gardens from World War I," said Gentile. "Those gardens grew 40 percent of American food. By getting back to that we can also help the growing lack-of-nutrition problem."
While these ideas may help, Gentile believes the growth in clients served this year will be more than originally projected. She said at Mother Hubbard's, they take it a day at a time.
"We're here to prevent people from getting into a poverty situation," said Gentile. "We always will be."
Jaclyn Baker can be reached at .