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Food Fight

Food crisis hits middle class here, abroad

Marketplace Contributor May 9, 2008
Food Fight

Food crisis hits middle class here, abroad

Marketplace Contributor May 9, 2008


TESS VIGELAND: During the Great Depression, food riots broke out in the US. In Minneapolis, hungry people smashed store windows to grab meat, fruit and canned goods. Similar riots are now sweeping the African continent. Today, as part of our series Food Fight, a look at the global food crisis, we focus on who is suffering. It’s not just the poor. More people in the middle class are having trouble feeding themselves. We have two stories about this new face of hunger.

Gretchen Wilson reports from South Africa where home gardening has become a necessity, but first Sean Cole visits a family in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, outside St. Paul.

SEAN COLE: Jen Peterson is a candidate for city council, and early last week she and her eight-year-old daughter Harley and I all piled into her minivan for a drive to the local food shelf.

JEN PETERSON: The Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park.

This wasn’t a campaign stop. She was dropping by to pick up some food for her family. It was just her second visit this year.

JEN PETERSON: But I see a trend developing.

COLE: In your life?

JEN PETERSON: Yeah in this need.

Jen knows that trend well. When she was a single mom with four kids she had to lean on all kinds of state aid. She and her current husband, Tony, both work two jobs, and after a big child support settlement in 2004, they were able to make do without assistance.

JEN PETERSON: So we were, you know, living pretty happy, middle class, dual-income parents.

Except both Tony and Jen’s ex are in the building industry, and after the foreclosure crisis hit, she found herself back at the food shelf for the first time in four years.

JEN PETERSON: It’s just hard to keep the cupboards full without having to spend more and more money, and this is, you know, the food shelf is the one way that we can supplement that. Ready to go in?

HARLEY PETERSON: Yup, but I need a ponytail.

JEN PETERSON: Oh, I don’t think I have a ponytail holder

The Friends in Need Food Shelf looks like a cross between a community center and a fallout shelter. It’s filled with boxes and bottles and cans and very, very nice people, one of whom handed Jen a clipboard when we walked in.

JEN PETERSON: All right, want to look at the list with me and see if there’s anything we don’t need?

HARLEY PETERSON: I don’t think we need SpaghettiOs.

JEN PETERSON: Oh no, we need SpaghettiOs.


JEN PETERSON: Yeah, we don’t need any canned peas.

HARLEY PETERSON: I don’t like peas.

JEN PETERSON: I know. I don’t either.

Eventually the volunteers rolled out a shopping cart with four bags of groceries in it: cereal, spaghetti, paper towels.

JEN PETERSON: Ooo, look at that, reduced-fat Cheez-Its. Woo-hoo, that is awesome.

Reduced-fat anything is a luxury when you’re short on food dollars, which is the kind of thing that some families in the area are just learning.

MICHELLE RAGETH: This morning, in the first 10 minutes we had five new families that have never been to a food shelf before.

Michelle Rageth is executive director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf. She says some of the newer families are embarrassed about having to rely on charity.

RAGETH: We have a lot of people who find it difficult to come in because they say: “I’ve contributed for the last 15 years. I never dreamed I’d be at a food shelf.”

COLE: They’ve given food?

RAGETH: Oh of course.

COLE: And now they have to take the food?

RAGETH: Yes, and they didn’t expect to ever be in that position.

And according to Hunger Solutions, which runs the food shelf network in Minnesota, there was a big spike in visits about six months before the foreclosure crisis hit.

COLLEEN MORIARTY: Sometimes food shelf usage starting to go up is a little bit of the canary in the mineshaft.

Colleen Moriarty is executive director of Hunger Solutions. She says food shelf visits have increased 60 percent since 2000, and most of the clients who come by now are employed.

MORIARTY: The tremendous spike is worrisome. The fact that we’ve now moved from an emergency food system to a way to keep the middle class fed is of great concern to me.

JEN PETERSON: All right, Harley you see any croutons on sale?

From Friends in Need, Jen and Harley headed to the local supermarket to pick up the rest of their groceries. Jen warned me that we’d probably be there a while.

JEN PETERSON: The lesser amount of money I have to spend, the longer it takes me to shop, because then I’m really watching the labels and comparing prices.

She wasn’t kidding. We spent about an hour in that store, peering at that tiny writing on the price labels that says how much stuff costs by the ounce.

JEN PETERSON: Holy buckets, $0.43 per ounce versus $0.25 cents per ounce. OK, store brand won this time.

But in three separate cases the store brands were actually more expensive than the name brands on sale.

JEN PETERSON: Oh, 9.5 cents per ounce, wow, I think the brand names are catching on that people don’t have money these days to buy groceries, so their reducing their prices.

At one point, Jen told me she’s thinking of growing a garden in her yard this summer.

JEN PETERSON: Just to have some cheap fresh produce. I don’t have a green thumb, but I might have to get one.

COLE: Do you have the time to tend a garden?

JEN PETERSON: No, I don’t, especially not with running the campaign.

But Gretchen Wilson talked to somebody who’s been doing a lot of gardening in South Africa.

JACOB MOKOBANE: This is the green beans. Here is the beetroot. This is the green pepper. That’s the . . .

GRETCHEN WILSON: For families in the developing world, gardens have become a necessity. In the small town of Mohlakeng, Jacob Mokobane planted vegetables in the field of a government high school.

MOKOBANE: And some of the food here assist me, especially the potatoes, tomatoes, you know, to put a decent meal on the table, yeah.

Fifty-year-old Mokobane used to earn $700 a month working in human resources at a gold mine. He pretty much had a middle class life, which means he could send his kids to school, and be the breadwinner for 50 members of his extended family, but the mine closed down. Now he and a few neighbors sell spinach from this garden, and when there’s no food in the cupboard, his family has what he calls “patchwork days.”

MOKOBANE: When days are dark, anything that you come across you eat, bread, two slices of bread at times. When there’s no bread, it’s tea. Then you sleep. Then the next morning you think about something else.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says 36 countries are facing a food crisis. Twenty-one are in Africa. The cost of milk, flour and bread are sometimes double what they were last year. To get by, some Africans will skip a meal, or sell-off assets like goats or wheelbarrows, or plant food in their yards, like in this one west of Johannesburg.

BERTHA TSHIKA: Then this one is the cabbage, is still small, but that one is nearly ready.

Rising food prices have the greatest impact on South Africa’s poor and tiny middle class, because compared to richer homes, they spend a bigger chunk of their income on food.

TSHIKA: My name it’s Bertha Tshika. I’m 65 now. I was suffering to buy some vegetables.

Tshika’s retired and lives in a tiny house in Bekkersdal, South Africa. She usually spends 80 percent of her social security check on groceries.

TSHIKA: Then I’ve got three brothers. They don’t work. It’s only me. I must give them food. Sometimes we were sleeping without food.

Last year, a local government program provided Tshika with some seeds and simple garden tools. She dug up her flower bed to plant green peppers, tomatoes and carrots.

TSHIKA: I’m going to cut the carrot. Then I wash it.

Now she relies on her small plot.

TSHIKA: I don’t buy cabbage any more. I don’t buy carrots. I don’t buy beetroot.

That means her money can be spent on things she can’t grow, like milk, tea, even bread for her grandchildren.

TSHIKA: Now I can make them a lunch, because I can afford to buy bread. Before, I couldn’t afford to buy bread.

Tshika says her success has inspired her neighbors to dig up their own yards. Now on this street, roses and manicured lawns have been replaced by corn stalks and cabbages.

In Bekkersdal, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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