Plight of the huddled masses: A hard time for Thanksgiving

As America celebrates its great national holiday, millions of poor families face a cold and hungry festive season. By Leonard Doyle
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The Independent US

Gertrude Winter, a char lady in her sixties who works at a government office, will have a turkey after all this Thanksgiving. At one stage yesterday, it seemed a close run thing. As she sat in the hallway of the Bread for the City charity a rumour swept the place that they were out of turkeys.

Agitated, another woman said: "The lady says there are no turkeys left, what are we going to do?" In fact the turkeys were already on their way from another warehouse and what might have degenerated into a mini-riot, reverted instead to the good-natured banter of strangers.

Thrown together by poverty and the pinched generosity of the United States, they waited to be interviewed to see if they were eligible for a free turkey and a bag of groceries. Mobile soup kitchens are keeping the homeless on the streets fed, but it is the working poor and those with young and old dependants who patiently line up at Bread for the City. Even with the help of government food stamps, most earn less than $7,000 (£3,400) a year, not nearly enough to survive on. They have long overcome the shame of queuing up every week in public for free food

"I used to come here all the time when my kids were growing up," said Ms Winter, "and now I'm back because everything is so expensive out there".

Today as millions of Americans sit down to their turkey dinners with all the trimmings, the safety net of hundreds of food banks and pantries that put food on the table of the nation's poor is creaking and torn as a result of sharply reduced donations. From New England to California warehouses that should be groaning with surplus foodstuffs are going half empty.

"We're bracing ourselves for a very tough winter, especially with home heating fuel prices at record highs in the north-east," said Mark Quandt of the regional food bank in New York. "People living in poverty or near poverty just can't sustain those types of increases."

America's obsession with energy independence from Middle East oil may be to blame. The country's farmers have brought in the greatest corn harvest since the Second World War, but their surpluses which once were bought by the government and sent to food banks are no longer available. Instead the corn is turned into heavily subsidised ethanol and less land is available to grow food.

And the corn syrup that turns up in almost every product found on a US supermarket shelf is in short supply. A cheap dollar means that food exports are booming and a crippling two-year drought in the south has left fruit and vegetables withered and useless.

Unnoticed by most Americans, as they drop off their old canned goods and surplus food at schools and church halls for the Thanksgiving food drives, the entire system may be heading for collapse.

A visit to three of Washington's largest charities – a shelter for 300 men, a community kitchen that feeds 4,000 every day and a food bank that supplies the basic needs of 108,000 people a year – revealed sharply reduced donations and a sense of desperation for the future. In the gleaming workspaces of DC Central Kitchen, half a mile from the White House, fresh vegetables were being chopped by volunteers from Georgetown University Law School. DC Central's culinary institute turns homeless drug addicts into professional chefs and provides hot meals for thousands of homeless people in shelters all over the city. Mike Curtain, its executive director, could pass muster as a US version of Jamie Oliver. "I don't think as a nation we are who we think we are," he says. "When I see the money wasted overseas in Iraq and knowing what it could do here, it makes me sick. I think Bush is a criminal for what he is doing.

"People in the world hate us, and rightly so, because of the way we treat our own people," he continued, "poverty would soon disappear if we invested some of that money on a living wage, healthcare and education. "

For now he is looking to the future by diversifying the DC Kitchen's food sources away from hotels and restaurants by negotiating directly with farmers. "I know donors that look at us as a way to keep their trash hauling costs down," he said. "Of the 80 trays of food we received from the company, 60 went into the dumpster."

In the south-east of the city, where the murder rate is rising and substance abuse seems uncontrollable, Jarval Green runs a homeless shelter for 300 people that focuses on addicts. It is funded by a Catholic charity and the numbers seeking emergency shelter keep growing.

"Now we are seeing veterans from the war showing up," he said, "the real problem here is poverty especially among men who are substance abusers."

Part of the reason food banks are running low on supplies is the absence of direct government spending. There is a political culture in the America that abhors spending taxpayers' money on the poor, even as the amount president Bush is spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approaches a trillion dollars.

Many Americans are hurting because of the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market, but the country has never been wealthier. There has been an explosion in the number of millionaire American households in recent years. Those earning $1m, $10m, $100m have more than doubled over the past decade and the wealthy of America are wealthier than most countries, with the top one per cent controlling $17trn.

But none of this wealth seems to have trickled down to the poor despite the promises from supply-side economists that it would.

George Jones, who runs Bread for the City, says the new rich also seem more interested in donating to the arts and universities than in giving their fellow Americans a leg up. Bread for the City is finding that law firms which once gave generously have cut their donations in half.

This week some 35.5 million Americans lined up at soup kitchens and food stamps offices to feed their families for the holiday. The look of panic that flashed across Gertrude Winter's face, when she though she was not getting a turkey, is being seen elsewhere in the country.

Now the homeless poor are having their ranks swelled further by war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 200,000 veterans were homeless on any given night last year and their numbers make up a quarter of the US homeless population – a figure that has been called "shockingly disproportionate".

Life below the poverty line is seen almost as boot camp for the shiftless. But if American taxpayers have been conditioned to reject any form of social welfare, they seem to accept that they cannot ignore hunger.

As a result a vast and complicated system has grown up over the years – part private charity, part government aid – to help the neediest get fed. The US social welfare system is miserly at best. Food stamps – a maximum of $3 per person a day – are given to the needy. In all it has 15 separate food assistance programmes which go though some $53bn a year, making it America's largest welfare programme

Now Congress is arguing with President Bush over a farm bill, which both unlocks cash to buy food for the poor and guarantees million-dollar cheques for some food producers.

"We have food banks in virtually every city in the country, and what we are hearing is that they are all facing severe shortages with demand so high, " Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger relief group, "One of our food banks in Florida said demand is up 35 per cent over this time last year."

At the Society of St Vincent de Paul food pantry in Cincinnati, clients now get three or four days' worth of food instead of six or seven. "We are trying to stretch our resources to help more people," said Liz Carter, executive director of the society. "But it's so difficult when you see the desperation and have to tell them you just don't have enough to give them what they need."

When George Bush pitched up in southern Virginia this week there was nothing to indicate that food banks were in trouble. The food bank he visited, the media were blandly informed, sends millions of pounds of groceries to needy families each year. Mr Bush walked past stacks of peanut butter, green beans and tinned soup. Then for the cameras he lifted a few crates of oranges, potatoes and macaroni and cheese on to a cart, telling the pastor: " C'mon man, let's go."

Then it was off to the banks of the James river and site of America's first official Thanksgiving. In 1619 Captain John Woodlief and his crew of 37 men fell to their knees and read a proclamation stating that the day of their ship's arrival should be "yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God".

Presidents typically make light work of the Thanksgiving holiday, but Mr Bush decided to dedicate an entire speech to it: "Our nation's greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people," he said. " As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back."

America's working people are increasingly unable to say where their family's next meal is coming from and demand is so outstripping supply that many food banks have had to cut back on portions. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and I can't believe how much worse it gets month after month," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, of Second Harvest.

The shortages being experienced indicate a burgeoning crisis in feeding the poor, caught in a vice of rising food prices, rent, healthcare and petrol. Another problem, says Mr Curtain of DC Central Kitchen, is that food manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers are getting better at managing their surplus food and are donating less to charity.

Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, says many dump unwanted inedible food on shelters. He recalls his days running a food bank when "no food donation was too small, too strange or too nutritionally unsound to be refused".

"I remember the load of nearly rotten potatoes that we gratefully accepted at the warehouse loading dock and then shovelled into the dumpster once the donor was safely out of sight."

At this time of the year Americans are at their most giving. The annual Thanksgiving turkey drive at a food bank Mr Winne founded in Connecticut has had its annual appeal for "A turkey and a 20 (dollar bill)". It collected 14,000 turkeys and $400,000 from the public in the richest state in the union. "At least at this time of the year they are prepared to give generously but the worry is that a system based on charity will mean that the supply of donated food will always ebb and flow," he said. "We may be entering one of those perfect storms where everything goes wrong but if we depend on food charity rather than ending poverty, this is what is bound to occur."

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