Robert Carter and his wife Mary Ridenour drove up to an alleyway behind First Metropolitan Community Church on a cold December morning in Wichita.
After waiting in a line of cars that sometimes backed up for blocks, they greeted The Rev. Jackie Carter, no relation, but a familiar face, who spoke their names into a walkie talkie.
Within minutes, volunteers had packed the food into their car and moved on to the next family.
“I don’t know what we’d do without this place,” Robert Carter said. “When you have four kids, they give you enough.”
About 1,700 people — including 500 families — seek groceries from the Table of Hope pantry every Tuesday.
“1,200 used to be our high number once in a while" before the pandemic, Jackie Carter said. “Now 1,200 is our low and 1,700 is our high.”
The pandemic has brought an increased number of people in Wichita seeking help getting enough to eat. Those who help feed the community say it’s largely due to job losses as well as people working fewer hours and making less.
About 10.2% of adults in Kansas sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat in the week around Thanksgiving, according to household survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 2018, one in eight Kansans faced food insecurity, according to the Kansas Food Bank. In 2020, that grew to one in six Kansans. One in four children across the state also had a lack of food this year.
Over time, Jackie Carter built relationships with the people who come to the pantry. She’s learned that most of them, like Carter and Ridenour, are what she would consider working poor — they have a job and income, but it’s not enough to feed themselves or their families.
She pointed to workers who make the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and used to work 40 to 50 hours a week. During the pandemic, they might be cut to 25 hours a week.
“You can’t survive on that,” she said.
Who's lacking food in Kansas?
Wichita State University economist Jeremy Hill sounded the food-insecurity alarm in October at the university’s annual Economic Outlook Conference.
While Kansas was faring better than the nation on most economic metrics, food insecurity was a glaring exception, said Hill, who heads WSU’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research.
“People who are laid off or furloughed, we were higher than the nation in often not having enough to eat,” he said at the time. “So this is a community issue, right? If we don’t have the resources there for someone who doesn’t have enough to eat, this is going to spill over to other issues, for mental health, for crime, that we need to think about as a community.”
At the time, those without a high school diploma — who tend to concentrate in fast food service, meat-packing and other low-end jobs — were the hardest-hit by food scarcity.
But when Hill analyzed the latest numbers last week, he noticed that’s changing and the insecurity is moving up the economic ladder.
Now, those in the most food-insecure group have high school diplomas.
“They’re the ones that are support services to business professional jobs downtown,” Hill said. “They’re the ones that are still lingering and have the biggest issue.”
There’s a racial component as well.
In July, as widespread shutdowns were ending and businesses were reopening, 19% of people who reported themselves as multi-racial were hardest hit by food insecurity, followed by Hispanics, 16%; African Americans, 9% and white, 5%.
That’s changed pretty dramatically to today, Hill said.
People of more than one race are still the most food-insecure at 15%, but food insecurity has dropped to 12% among Hispanics and 5% among African Americans.
Meanwhile, food insecurity has risen four points among white residents, to 9%. That’s a major shift because white people are 75% of the population and percentage swings in that group affect a lot more people overall.
Hill forecasts that the problem of food insecurity will keep climbing the income pyramid.
“I think it’s going to shift up more to the more educated people who are going to have more food insecurities,” he said. “They’re the ones who are being laid off now.”
And because high-level jobs are scarcer than low-level ones, “they will struggle more to get back into the labor market,” Hill said. “If you have a graduate degree or higher, your ability to just flow through the economy slows down.”v While it might be hard for many to feel too sorry for highly-educated people who have had good jobs historically, they also have higher expenses for things like housing and cars and, like most Americans, they also tend to live paycheck to paycheck, Hill said.
“Someone who is white-collar going to get free food seems kind of like a paradox, but it is a possibility and a concern,” he said.
Wichita community steps up
Mario Cervantes also sees a direct link between food insecurity and the local workforce. It’s that connection that pushed him to open Mario’s Pantry nearly 20 years ago on Wichita’s south side.
Cervantes is the AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison at the United Way of the Plains, a position that connects local labor unions to charitable giving. When Cervantes joined the United Way in April 2002, Wichita was feeling the impact of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on its local economy.
“We lost thousands of jobs in this area because of the impact of 9/11 on aircraft,” he said. “People need food. This was a way for me to help free up dollars for other stuff, like rent and utilities.”
Mario’s Pantry is a small operation and feeds about 8 to 10 people a month, Cervantes said. It’s at the Machinists Union headquarters on Meridian.
If someone wants to schedule a pickup, they can dial 211 and ask for Mario. The 211 referral from the United Way also offers resources for food assistance.
Most of the food in Mario’s Pantry is donated by union members. There are no restrictions on who can schedule a pick-up.
One can of food
Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita said she’s constantly hearing heartbreaking stories from the people who don’t have enough to eat.
One woman called her, frantic because she was waiting for unemployment benefits and couldn’t get through to the Department of Labor, which has been overwhelmed with claims.
“She told the story that her and her daughter had to share one of those regular-size cans of spaghetti and sauce, because that’s all they had to eat that night,” Faust-Goudeau said. “These people are suffering. They were already suffering . . . I told her on the phone, I said, ‘Ma’am, your story is making me cry.’”
She said she forwarded the woman’s contact information to top Labor Department officials and was assured the unemployment situation will be handled soon.
But making matters worse, Save A Lot, the only full-service grocery store in south Wichita’s Planeview area, announced last week it would be closing for good on Dec. 19.
“That was the only grocery store in that area for those low-income people,” Faust-Goudeau said. “They don’t have vehicles to even get to a food bank.”
Faust-Goudeau said she’s meeting with the company and Wichita City Council member James Clendenin to try to find a way to get the store reopened.
In an effort to bring some relief, Faust-Goudeau said she’s teaming up with Rep. Susan Estes — a Republican and the wife of Congressman Ron Estes — on a bipartisan bill aimed to get rid of Kansas’ sales tax on food purchases.
Hill’s economic findings and predictions are concerning, said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican who heads the House Health and Human Services Committee.
She said she foresees difficulties in getting food to the people who need it, especially those in the white-collar economy who have never had to ask before.
“If you’re dealing with individuals who have a reluctance to reach out for help, then how do you overcome that?” she said.
“With all the different food banks and all the different charitable groups we’ve got and the Lord’s Diner ( a free-meal kitchen in downtown Wichita) and stuff, people should not go hungry. It’d be interesting to get into the weeds a little bit with it. I don’t know what we can do from the state perspective, but I’m happy to take a look at it.”
For now, private entities are getting more creative about getting food to those who need it.
For example, Tajahnae Stocker organized the ICT Community Fridge Project in August.
Anyone can take food from the fridges with no questions asked, Stocker said. Offerings range from grab-and-go sandwiches and granola bars to fruits and vegetables. The space at Dead Center Vintage also has pantry items and non-perishables.
The project receives monetary donations through a cash app and food contributions dropped off at the fridges. This fall, Stocker held a grocery distribution and handed out bags of food. She hopes to do another.
Stocker has studied food insecurity and potential solutions since last year, through a fellowship with Young People For. She said she found the causes to be rooted in historical discrimination in red-lined neighborhoods that went on to see disproportionate poverty. She believes the pandemic exacerbated those issues.
The next step is to place a third refrigerator in Wichita. Stocker said she’s considering a location at Revolutsia in the 67214 zip code or in Planeview. Her ultimate goal, however, is to see the fridges empty.
“If it’s empty, I know a lot of people are taking from it,” she said. “And the fridge isn’t just for people who are poor or lost their jobs. It’s for anybody.”
New to hunger relief
The Kansas Food Bank supplies pantries and other partner agencies across 85 counties in the state. By October, the food bank saw a 36% increase from last year in the demand for services at pantries, said Brian Walker, president of the organization.
“A number of these folks are new to hunger relief, they’ve never had to visit a pantry before,” Walker said. “Some of them have been off work off and on. They went back to work and then got laid off again with the surge in the virus.”
Some people who lost income put their money first toward car, rent or mortgage payments and then found themselves with still more bills. Given the longevity of the pandemic, families might have run out of savings.
Walker said the food bank staff is planning on another two years of increased need from food pantries in Kansas.
“We really didn’t know what the pandemic was going to bring, because we all were in sprint mode just trying to meet the need,” Walker said. “Now we’re in marathon mode because we know we’re in it for the long haul.”
Across Kansas, 3.1% of Census survey respondents who experienced a loss of employment “often” didn’t have enough to eat around Thanksgiving. The number of people who “sometimes” didn’t have enough to eat was 14.2% if they lost income.
At the Table of Hope food pantry, Jackie Carter and the team of volunteers tried to squeeze in as many people as possible. It was the last distribution before the Christmas holiday and snow was forecast for later in the afternoon.
She had families booked to come through until 4 p.m. that day. If she knew someone had children, she handed out hats and gloves.
“My gut instinct is that these are people for whom the holiday is nothing different,” she said. “They’re just trying to figure out how to feed their families.”
How to get and give help
The Eagle is partnering with the United Way of the Plains to help provide food for families in need this holiday season.
If you’re able, you may make a donation at www.unitedwayplains.org/food, text "groceries" to 91999 or send a check to The United Way of the Plains, 245 N. Water, Wichita, Kansas 67202-1201 and write “food” in the memo line. To get help, call 211 for food assistance referral information.
Other community resources include:
Table Of Hope food pantry, First Metropolitan Community Church: Food distributions on most Tuesdays at 156 S. Kansas. The food pantry is closed until Jan. 5. For more information and to make an appointment, visit www.tableofhopeict.org.
ICT Community Fridge Project: You can donate on Cash App to the $ictfreefood account. Drop off or pick up food from the fridges at Dead Center Vintage, 626 E. Douglas, or CHD Boxing Club, 2505 E. Ninth St. N. Visit ICT Community Fridge Projecton Facebook for more information.
This story was originally published by The Wichita Eagle and is published here as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including KMUW.