“Food security” is not a term most folks have on their minds this time of year.
As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, food security is access to and means to acquire enough food for every member of a household to enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle.
Food insecurity is the opposite of that. It denotes households that, at least once a year, do not have sufficient resources to put enough food on the table.
A report released by the USDA last month shows that 17.4 percent of the state’s population is food insecure. Data was based on surveys conducted from 2005-07.
In the best of economic times, that number is enough to keep any food pantry busy.
But the economic downturn that has gripped the U.S., leading to unprecedented job loss, has tightened the strain on food banks.
“We’ve seen a huge increase over the last year,” said Walker Satterwhite, executive director of the Mississippi Food Network (MFN). “We’ve probably seen a 30 percent increase in the number of people we serve.”
Though there’s no feasible way to quantify it, some of that increase is represented in people who are first-time clients of the MFN, those who find themselves suddenly food insecure.
“We’re starting to see hard-working, middle-class people who just got caught off-guard by the downturn in the economy,” Satterwhite said. “When you’re dealing with food insecurity, you’re going to find yourself at some point in the month where you’re going to lack enough money to get food. We’ve seen that increase.”
The MFN distributed about one million pounds of food per month to its 320 agencies across the state. It serves roughly 90,000 people per month.
Satterwhite expects the demand to grow throughout 2009, when economists say could see continued job loss. The MFN’s food supply comes from corporate and individual donations.
“We’re going to be fine through the holidays due to our generous donors. Our concern is the sustainability of the next year,” Satterwhite said. “We need to put a plan together to handle that.”
MFN agencies in Northeast Mississippi have seen an especially large increase in new clients. That area of the state has lost 2,000 manufacturing jobs year-to-date. Agencies are seeing people who don’t necessarily need food every month, Satterwhite said, but now have run out of food and money at the same time.
“When we find out about those, we try to put as much product as we can to accommodate them. But, if we continue to see this grow, we may have some problems,” Satterwhite said.
Helping things are several holiday food drives held by schools and businesses. In a weeklong canned food drive recently, Madison Central High School raised 180,000 cans of food.
“They’ve done it year-in and year-out. They filled up two 18-wheelers with food. It’s people like that that are helping us keep our head above water,” Satterwhite said.
The MFN also prepares a holiday-themed box to distribute that includes food to make up a meal such as Christmas dinner.
“ You want to see people get some nice food during the holidays. We’ve made a big effort to supply that,” Satterwhite said.
Stewpot Community Services was founded in 1981 to feed and assist the Jackson area’s poor and homeless.
Since then Stewpot’s ministry has expanded to include an array of services, from family counseling to shelters for battered women and the homeless to after-school programs. Its food distribution ministry revolves around a noon meal served everyday and its food pantry.
“Food demand is way up,” said Stewpot CEO Frank Spencer. “We’ve seen, I’d say, a 15 percent increase in our clients who venture in and out of the lunch crowd. I anticipate it keeping on that path the rest of the year.”
Stewpot’s food pantry feeds approximately 6,500 people a month, with some of those repeat clients, Spencer said. Its shelters serve 5,000 meals a month.
The holidays normally represent a spike in donations, but this year has been different.
“I think people have waited later this year to make their donations,” Spencer said. “I hope they get a little bit more comfortable with the economy and make the donations maybe a couple weeks later than they usually do. That’s critical to us. Charities can’t just make up money.”
It’s critical, Spencer says, because even in normal holiday-donation cycles, Stewpot will run out of food around February or March. The annual Stewpot fundraiser A Taste of Mississippi restocks the pantries, as does the Christmas in July fundraiser.
“When (food shortage) gets to be a problem, we announce to the public that we’re short, and people respond pretty good to us when we ask for it,” Spencer said.
Like the MFN, Stewpot has seen a substantial number of first-time clients.
“People come in and they’re embarrassed,” Spencer said. “Some of them say, ‘I never thought I’d have to come to stewpot for food.’”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .