Despite lower unemployment rate, food insecurity remains constant

By Katie Demeria

Winchester’s hunger rate has rested at 14.6 percent over the past few years — 2.5 percent above the state average. According to the Blue Ridge Food Bank CEO Michael McKee, the solution to the problem is more complex than providing temporary hunger relief.

Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, released its annual Map the Meal Gap study this week in which it outlined hunger rates in every state.

McKee said the most striking aspect of the recent numbers for Winchester is the fact that they have not changed.

“Food insecurity in the communities we serve has been pretty much stable for the last three or four years even though unemployment rates have come down,” McKee said.

He added that the people who are food insecure are increasingly those who are working but not making enough to put food on the table.

Though Shenandoah County’s hunger rate is below the state average at 10.3 percent, Donna Orndorff, director of the Keep the Change Food Pantry, said she has seen a steady increase in the number of people using the pantry’s services.

“Especially this past winter I’ve seen a lot more older people, and they’ll tell me their electric bill went so high, or their fuel bill,” she said. “I’m really hoping that because we did have such a bad winter, their fuel bills will go down and some of them can get caught up.”

Orndorff said the Keep the Change Food Pantry is particularly blessed — they have never run out of food despite the steady influx of clients. She attributed that to a high number of donations from the community. The Wal-Mart in Woodstock, she said, gives them a great deal of food.

McKee said Blue Ridge Food Bank’s partner agencies, such as Keep the Change Food Pantry, record the number of meals they serve each month.

In 2006, McKee said, the agencies were providing 60,000 meals per month. Now, they are averaging 120,000.

“Our numbers doubled pretty quickly into the recession, and then stayed there,” he said. “It comes down to jobs.”

According to McKee, 60 percent of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-range, paying between $14 and $20 per hour, and often full time with benefits. He said 60 percent of the jobs regained during the recovery, however, have been closer to minimum wage, often part time, and with no benefits.

“It’s underemployment, low wage, a significant drop in household income, and so those who are in the margins, who are barely getting by, are now not getting by and returning to food pantries and the food bank for help,” McKee said.

The recession also accelerated trends that were already underway, he pointed out, including the erosion of manufacturing jobs, the effect of globalization on manufacturing and technology.

“Technology is demanding a much higher level of skill from employees than it did 10, 20 years ago,” he said. “The workforce needs a higher level of skills in order to compete for jobs.”

The real solution to food insecurity, he added, is prosperity.

“It’s a long-term solution because it’s a long-term problem,” he said. “None of this is going to be easy to solve,”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com