Hunger in the suburbs

November 17, 2016
Ann George, executive director of the Parma Heights Food Pantry, said the pantry is providing food to six times the number of families it did when it opened in 2008. Alison Grant for Bread for the World.

By Alison Grant

When Ann George opened the Parma Heights Food Pantry in 2008, the depth of the Great Recession wasn’t yet apparent. The local food bank told her she would likely see about 50 families a month.

Eight years later, with the recession long since officially over -- and recent census data showing years of high poverty easing in communities across the U.S. – the pantry supplies food to 280 to 300 families a month.

“We’re seeing people that have gotten jobs again, but they’re not the good-paying jobs that they had,” George said. “I’ve actually had men come in here and cry. They say they never expected to see themselves in a place like this.”

George started concentrating on hunger in Parma Heights in 2007 after she overheard two women in the grocery store talk about struggling to make ends meet after their husbands died and their pensions were cut by more than half.

A meeting was set for that night at her church to discuss mission donations to Central America. George told parishioners the money was needed at home. When she started making calls to drum up interest in a pantry, she ran into disbelief that there could be a problem in Parma Heights.

“I found out then that if you weren’t affected by it, you didn’t know how bad it was,” said George. It was the same thing Michael Harrington described 50 years earlier in his book “The Other American,” when he said that poverty survived because it was invisible to most Americans.


At the entrance to the Parma Heights Food Pantry, instructions on how much food to select from the shelves, depending on family size. Alison Grant for Bread for the World.

Hurting families

In 1999, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank supplied 518 anti-hunger programs, primarily in the city of Cleveland. By 2015 there were 710 programs, scattered across a wider geographical area, with pantries and hot meal dining halls springing up in bedroom communities such as North Royalton and Bay Village.

At the Parma Heights Food Pantry, George and her small crew of dedicated volunteers see hurting families up close every week. Parma Heights families or those who go to a church in town can visit once a month to pick canned and boxed food, produce and bakery goods from the shelves. But George never turns anyone away.

Rita Mandsley, 62, walks to the pantry from Middleburg Heights, 2 1/4 hours each way. She pulls a wagon to carry home food if it’s not raining. If it is, she uses a tote bag and takes less.

“It means the difference between having something to eat and not,” she said. “I get by in between by scrounging through garbage cans.”

Donna of Parma Heights, with her granddaughter, Alessa, 1, said the pantry is a lifeline for her household of six. “Just to get to the end of the month is kind of hard,” Donna said. “They’re really good here.

There’s always been pockets of poverty in the suburbs, of course. But suburban poverty began accelerating after the 2008 housing collapse and foreclosures that disrupted families, said Claudia Coulton, founder and co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University.

The economic downturn saw the iron foundry at the Ford plant two miles from the Parma Heights pantry close after 58 years of being a path into the middle class.  Ford also shuttered its Engine Plant No. 2 and GM closed its transmission factory. At its peak in the 1960s, the Ford complex employed 15,000. Now it’s about 1,000.

“Those were good-paying union jobs. People could buy houses,” George said.

At the Parma Heights Food Pantry, volunteers scramble to respond to the scarcity some local families live with. The pantry has gently-used clothing (up to six items per family member), children’s books (with a stuffed-bear chair for young visitors set up near the book shelves), a treasure chest of trinkets for kids and blankets that are donated to veterans.

The pantry's main source of food is the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. Every week a small caravan heads there -– Ann and her husband, Arnie, in their car, following a truck driven by a neighbor. The pantry spends about $1,200 a month at the food bank and $1,500 for rent and utilities.

November and December are the pantry’s busiest months. People that won’t come in the rest of the year show up hoping to put a holiday dinner on the table. Jaworski Meats in Middleburg Heights sells turkeys to the pantry at cost.

“Most of the businesses that I approach try to help us one way or another,” said George, 82, who has had two open heart surgeries and is on her second pacemaker but shows no sign of slowing down.

George said helping neighbors was something she witnessed as a young girl growing up on the near West Side of Cleveland. Her father, an Italian immigrant, went to West Tech High to learn to be a shoemaker. When he set up shop at 57th and Lorain, customers didn’t always have the cash to cover their bill.

“He would say take the shoes and when you have money you can come back and pay me,” George recalled. George sees some of the same hardship at the doorstep of the pantry today.

“If you have not been affected by this it’s very hard to understand that there are people in this country,” she said, “in your own neighborhood, that are hurting.”

Alison Grant is a freelance writer in Bay Village, Ohio.

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