Facing hunger here in New Jersey

Theresa Robinson shares her story of food insecurity at Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill on March 10 during the parish’s annual “Lenten Soup Supper,” an event raising awareness for hunger. Photo by Joanna Gardner
Theresa Robinson shares her story of food insecurity at Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill on March 10 during the parish’s annual “Lenten Soup Supper,” an event raising awareness for hunger.
Photo by Joanna Gardner

Encountering Mercy: Feed the Hungry

“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In March, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Feed the Hungry.” This month’s profiles highlight examples of those who experience this corporal work of mercy in their daily lives.

Theresa Robinson worked all her life. As a single mother, she worked up to three jobs at a time to support her three children. She worked full-time as a paralegal at a legal services program for 43 years, supplementing her income with part-time jobs.

As a paralegal, she worked with clients on cases related to welfare benefits, food stamps and child custody. She had her own caseload and represented clients in administrative court. The job didn’t pay a lot, but it “paid in rewards of helping people,” Robinson said.

Things became difficult when Robinson was diagnosed with cancer, first in 1998 and then again in 2008. The first time, she was out of work on disability for a year, but was eventually able to return to working two jobs. The second time, the cancer came back at stage four and she was forced into retirement. In between the two diagnoses, Robinson took on the responsibility of being a mother again when she assumed custody of her granddaughter.

Today, it’s been five years since Robinson’s last cancer treatment, and “I’m still here,” she says with a smile. Her granddaughter will graduate high school this spring and is looking toward college. But it has not been easy making ends meet.

“Feeding her and myself, after going from an income of a full-time job and two part-time jobs to living on social security — it is difficult,” Robinson said. High health insurance payments, medicines, gas for the car and household bills all added to the strain on an already limited budget. For food, the Salem County resident turned to local food pantries at churches and elsewhere throughout the community.

“I am blessed,” she said. “I am blessed and thankful for the pantries that help me feed my family.”

The New Face of Hunger

Robinson’s case is not unique. Across the U.S., one in seven Americans faces food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to adequate food. Food insecurity means that individuals must choose between food and other basic necessities, like medicine or housing.

“The choices they’re faced with are so difficult: ‘Do I get prescriptions or food? Do I buy lower quality food because I can get more of it?’ That leads to unhealthy eating habits,” said Deborah Oglesby, who coordinates food pantry outreach and Salem County health and wellness programs for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. “People tend to think that it’s those who don’t work who are hungry, but we’re seeing that it’s the working families who are having such a difficult time.”

Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, reports that more than half of those seeking assistance at its food pantries and food banks across the nation have a member of the household who is employed or has been employed within the year.

More than half of those seeking food assistance through the national Feeding America network have high blood pressure. A third suffer from diabetes. (The rates of both were higher among older adults served by the network.) Sixty six percent had to choose between food and medical care; 57 percent had to choose between food and housing. Nearly 80 percent of households served by the network reported purchasing cheap, unhealthy food to feed their families.

In New Jersey, the percentage of those who are food insecure is slightly below the national average, at about 1 in 8. But in the six counties of the Diocese of Camden, the average is higher, with 1 in 7 residents facing food insecurity, or about 14 percent of the area’s total population.

The face of hunger in the United States has changed over the years. Food pantries have developed from being a source for food in temporary emergency situations to being a staple for many families and seniors, who rely on them to feed themselves and their families each month.

These “recurrent” food pantry users, classified as those who have used a pantry every month for the past year, make up the majority of those using pantries in the Feeding America national network. Of these, more than half reported that their food stamp benefits lasted only a week.

In New Jersey, average food stamp benefits are $121.75 per participant per month, although actual benefits depend on income level and a family’s size. A single individual qualifies for food stamps in New Jersey if his or her annual income does not exceed $15,301. A household of five must have an income at or below $36,933.

Catholic Charities’ Hunger Response

Salem County, where Theresa Robinson has lived all her life, is also home to some of Catholic Charities’ most innovative hunger programs. Catholic Charities operates food pantries in five of the six counties served by the Diocese of Camden. In Salem County, the agency is able to go further, providing nutritional education and support to county food pantries beyond the two operated by Catholic Charities, thanks to a grant from the Salem Health and Wellness Foundation.

In Salem County, which has a food insecurity rate of 1 in 7 and is one of New Jersey’s poorest counties, the agency has formed a coalition of 19 food pantries that meets to share resources and best practices. It hosts nutrition education workshops twice a month in member pantries, educating the pantries’ patrons on healthy eating habits and cooking techniques. It coordinates fresh food drives and is most recently becoming involved in gleaning, the practice of collecting excess produce from farmers’ fields for the poor.

“Poverty and food insecurity often go hand-in-hand with poor health,” Oglesby said. “Feeding the person is not enough. There needs to be access to a healthy lifestyle for there to be a good quality of life.”

Parishioners can contact their

parish about donating food to a local or parish pantry. For a listing of Catholic Charities’ pantries, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/BasicNeeds.


The mercy of feeding the hungry

Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate was his third and final encyclical and was published in 2009. Its theme is the intersection of charity (or love) and truth in responding to the world’s social problems. In the following passages, he emphasizes the importance of food as a foundational human right and concern of the Church.

“Feed the hungry (Mt 25: 35, 37, 42) is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods. Moreover, the elimination of world hunger has also, in the global era, become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet.…

“The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.”