Poverty is a grave and growing issue in Flagler County as elsewhere in the country: Flagler’s poverty rate jumped from 7.8 percent four years ago to 11.5 percent last year, with 45 percent of single mothers living in poverty. The 43.6 million people living in poverty in America is the highest number ever.
The problem is compounded by misperceptions that make the job of those trying to feed the hungry more difficult—and the needy more difficult to reach and help. Monday morning, the Flagler County Commission heard from Wayne Rieley and Thomas Mantz about some ways to alleviate the problem. Mantz heads Jacksonville-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Florida. Rieley heads Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida. Second Harvest, which gathers food in food drives and raises money to buy more food, is in partnership with 500 agencies in 18 counties in Northeast Florida. It’s aiming to increase its presence in Flagler through local agencies.
- Food Stamps Eligibility, 2010-11 Standards
- Census: Flagler’s Population Stalls at 91,600; 28% of Housing Units Vacant; Poverty Rising
- Record 43.6 Million in Poverty; Record 50.7 Million Uninsured; Only Elderly Thrive
- Income, Employment and Labor Data for Flagler County and Palm Coast
“The biggest problem we have at Second Harvest is not finding food, it’s being able to distribute food,” Mantz said. “One of the challenges we’ve had in Flagler County among many other counties is that it’s very difficult to find people that can handle food and get it to people in need, whether it’s a warm meal or simply food that is shelf-stable.” In 2007, Second Harvest shipped 6 million pounds of food in the 18-county area. In 2008, that was up to 7.5 million pounds, and 10 million pounds the following year. Second Harvest is aiming to double that this year. The need is there.
“One of the reasons we’re here is that we’ve changed our structure and how we go about doing business, and we’re able to move much more food into the community,” he said. “Secondarily, it also speaks to the burgeoning need. When you look at that 20 million pounds this year, that’s only about half of all the folks in the 18 counties that we take care of, it’s only about half of their recognized needs.” He added: “When you think about this, if you walk away from here today thinking about nothing other than hunger, think of two things. One in eight adults and one in five children in your community today are hungry. Another way to look at it is you know someone in your life today who is on food assistance. You don’t know that you know that but they are on food assistance.”
How You Can Help:
- Donate time, money or food at Grace Tabernacle Food Pantry, next to Pathways school, behind Flagler Palm Coast High School (off Bulldog Drive), or call 586-2653. Contributions are tax-deductible.
- Donate through the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce’s foundation (contributions are tax-deductibles), 20 Airport Road, Suite C, Palm Coast, FL 32164
- Contact Second Harvest Food Bank of North Florida
Here’s how Second Harvest is changing its approach to reach more hungry people, children especially: It conducts mobile distribution “drops,” partnering with a local agency where thousands of pounds of food are dropped off. It feeds into afterschool snack programs, summer lunch programs, and a “backpack program” to address an emerging problem: many children would come to school on Mondays hungry, having spent two days away from school, where they are often better fed than at home. Second Harvest gets them backpacks that don’t distinguish them from others, and on Fridays, fills those backpacks with about 10 pounds of food. Second Harvest wants to start that here. “It’s a terrific opportunity in that particular instance to deal with some of the specific issues,” Mantz said.
Senior centers are also a new target, as is a “SNAP Outreach program.” SNAP is the acronym for the federal government’s food stamps, or “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”
One misperception is about the nature of poverty. Most of Flagler County’s poor aren’t destitute. They’re part of the working poor, living on subsistence wages from paycheck to paycheck, usually lacking health insurance and depending on luck to make ends meet. If a car breaks down, choices have to be made between repairing it and putting food on the table. If a child gets sick, choices have to be made between buying medicines and buying groceries. If a mortgage or rent payment is missed, the hole gets deeper.
Another misperception is that the poor, working or not, are somehow not part of everyday society. But they’re school teachers, assistant living facility attendants, bus drivers, retail clerks. Yet another misperception, besides the enduring and offensive castigation of the “welfare queen” (offensive and inaccurate even when Ronald Reagan peddled it the first time), is that the poor are lining up at the troth of public benefits. They’re not. In Flagler as in the rest of Florida, social service agencies and food banks are having difficulties signing up the poor for the help they’re due, whether it’s insurance coverage for children or food stamps.
In Duvall County, 28 percent of food stamps go unclaimed. Alicia Casas of the United Way of Volusia-Flagler Counties says 3,000 Flagler residents eligible for food stamps and are not claiming them. As a result, several hundred thousand dollars a month—several million a year—are being neither claimed nor spent in Flagler by those who need the aid.
There is some confusion over the precise dollar amount that’s going unclaimed. Casas and the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce put the unclaimed amount at $720,000 a month, or $8.6 million a year. That’s assuming an average food stamp allowance of $240 per month. The $240 figure is correct, but it is the average household allowance, not individual allowance. The average individual allowance is about $105, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers food stamps. That would work out to about $3.8 million a year—either way, a considerable sum that’s going unclaimed.
That’s where a local coalition in place since June comes in.
“This started back when I was standing in the lobby of the chamber and a lady came in the chamber,” Doug Baxter, president of the Flagler Chamber of Commerce, told commissioners. “She was crying and she said to me, ‘I need you help,’ and I said, ok, how can I help you? She said ‘I have three little ones in the car that haven’t eaten in two days.’ So we formed a coalition. It includes the United Way, the Center for Business Excellence, the Department of Children and Families, Second Harvest and the chamber.”
The coalition’s aim is to find $114,000 to pay someone for two years. That person’s job would be to “go to the newly poor and the working poor and sign them up for the benefits that they deserve. On top of that we need to sign them up if we can for Medicare and Medicaid. If you’re not aware the hospital last year wrote off about $8 million in bad debt, we’d like to cut into that so that the hospital can help the community a little bit more because they’ll have a little bit more money.”
The drive to secure that $114,000 is ongoing.
For the record, Ronald Reagan gave birth to the “welfare queen” myth during his first campaign for president, in 1976, when he was running against Gerald Ford in the GOP primaries. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly mentioned the case of a Chicago “welfare queen” who, Reagan claimed, had collected $150,000 in welfare, food stamps and Medicaid benefits under 80 names and Social Security numbers. The woman was found. She had been accused of using four names, not 80, and had collected $8,000 in benefits, some of which she was due under normal circumstances. But the minor fraud turned into an oversize, and policy-altering, myth: two major changes in law, in 1977 and 1980—during the Carter administration and a Democratic Congress—knocked hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries off the rolls as income eligibility were reduced.