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Hunger on the Rise in US - 2002-11-23

Hunger is on the rise in the United States. According to data released in November, 11.5 million households are now classified as food insecure. That means they have trouble pulling together enough food to meet basic needs. That's an increase of 1 million households since 1999.

One place where the problem of hunger is especially pronounced is California's Central Valley, home to some of the nation's most productive farmland. More than a third of low-income adults in the region have trouble feeding their families.

"Food insecure" is a sterile term... a phrase used by researchers and charity workers. But for Ronald, a 60-year-old grandfather who asked to keep his last name a secret, the struggle to feed his family is a daily reality. "We've got a little propane gas stove, the electric skillet, a coffee pot and a little microwave and we suffice, you just do what you have to do as you have to do it," he said.

Ronald's makeshift kitchen is set up on a bathroom counter in the one room motel room in Fresno where he, his wife and 3 granddaughters have been living for the last several months. Ronald is a skilled carpenter, but he got mixed up in a bad business deal and lost everything. Now he's working as a day laborer, making minimum wage. His granddaughters, ages three, seven and 10, mean everything to him, and Ronald says he'll make sure they go to bed every night with full stomachs. "I'll do whatever I have to do to feed them," he says. "It doesn't matter anymore. I'm at a point that I don't care. The children will eat and if I've gotta steal to do it, I may do that too, because I can't let the children go hungry. It's just not right."

It may not be right, but Ronald is certainly not alone. According to a recent study by the University of California Los Angeles, working people in the state who earn up to double the standard set by the federal government for poverty wages still have trouble making ends meet. Undocumented immigrants, single parents, and unemployed adults are most likely to be affected. The worst situation is in the county that ranks first in the nation for agricultural production. Forty-one percent of low-income adults in Tulare County, one of the poorest in the California, are unsure of where all their meals will come from.

On this day, residents of the rundown Tulare County town of London are picking up free rice, beans, dried milk powder, canned apricots and prunes at the town's community center. The food, agricultural surplus from all across the country, is distributed here just once a month. It's busy now, because the fieldwork that sustains most of London's residents has slowed down with the approach of cold weather. Catalina Morro says her family budget has become increasingly tight. "Some friends told me to come here because they are giving assistance," she said. "Rents are really high, there isn't enough money for everything."

That's a story told over and over again at this food giveaway and dozens of others like it in similar small towns around the valley. Jobs are hard to come by in this region that consistently faces double-digit unemployment rates. And housing costs, although significantly lower than in coastal California, still take an uncomfortably large bite out of wages. Sandy Beals is director of food link, which runs numerous food programs in Tulare County including this one. "The problem is pretty overwhelming," she said. "Every time we do a distribution there's a huge line of people who come hours and hours and hours before they know the doors are going to open because they're so afraid we're going to run out. That is not a good sign for society. Every human being deserves to have enough food."

And there is enough food in the endless rows of fruit trees and planted fields that define the landscape across the Central Valley. But as Sandy Beals puts it, you can't just open up the fields to the hungry.

Cynthia Russo, 39, has to subsist on canned food that she picks up from local food banks. She lives in a tiny residential motel in Fresno with her boyfriend and 14-year-old son. Ms. Russo lost her job last month and the family is now living on one income. "Sometimes you've got to choose whether you want a roof over your head or a full belly," said Cynthia Russo.

She chooses to pay rent. But that means her small refrigerator is frequently bare and some days she says they have nothing. "It's hard when your kid is crying at night, telling you he's hungry and there's nothing you can do about it," she says. "It hurts real deep."

In this land of plenty it would seem there should be enough food to go around. But surpluses in the fields don't translate to full stomachs for all the people who live and work in the region. And according to charity workers here, the lines for free food just keep getting longer.