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Victoria Garafola

Hunger hurts: stereotypes and stigmas endanger the impoverished

By Victoria Garafola, junior English major

Jim Friese lives in his car. At 25 years old, Friese says he never expected to be in this situation. Not too long ago, Jim was a computer student at Lackawanna College and an employee at Wegmans in Dickson City. After losing his job, Friese found himself in a difficult position.

Now Friese, like many others, relies on the Saint Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen for what is usually his only meal of the day. Jim Friese is not the exception. According to Feeding America, one in six Americans are food insecure. Like many other Americans, Friese often does not know where his next meal will come from.

Confronting the Stigma

The media often focuses on the impoverishment of individuals in developing countries before examining the prevalence of poverty in our own neighborhoods. Commercials for the Save the Children foundation run every night on our cable channels and images of starving children have gone viral. Despite this publicity, many Americans are unaware of the continuing problem in our own communities.

 A simple Google search for “Hunger in Scranton, Pa” reveals countless articles on the recent blockbuster The Hunger Games. Whatever write-ups are found are outdated and irrelevant, unless it happens to be related to the holidays. The under reported issue of food insecurity is only a part of the complexity of poverty for millions of Americans. The social stigmas associated with hunger undermine the plight of the struggling working class.

Hunger does not discriminate. Hunger affects children, elderly, and laid-off young adults alike. Hunger is both a global crisis and domestic danger. The social stigma of hunger is, in many ways, detrimental to the fight against both hunger and poverty.

These issues are not isolated. According to a study reported by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, half of all Americans will rely on food stamps for some period of time by the age of 20. An increasing number of middle class individuals are utilizing pantries and government assistance. However, not everyone who needs assistance is eligible and this is how places like Saint Francis act as an additional lifeline in the fight against poverty.

According to Msgr. Joseph Kelly, director of Saint Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen located in Scranton, hunger isn’t the direct problem for impoverished individuals.

“People think homelessness is like New York City [where the homeless are more visible]… the difference is in small communities you don’t see them,” said Msgr. Kelly. Based on his experience at the kitchen, Msgr. Kelly said individuals have a more difficult time addressing the basic need for shelter and hygiene than hunger.

“I think most people see food insecurity as something that they really want to do something about. That’s the social stigma,” said Kelly. Kelly discussed the variety of issues that contribute to the negative social stigma of hunger, which includes the prevalence of alcoholism, language barriers among those in need, and problems with public transportation.

A volunteer works to prepare squash at Saint Francis Soup Kitchen. Photo Credit: Elysabethe Brown

Optimism Despite Hardship

Despite the hardships Friese has faced, he remains both optimistic and thankful for his experience.

“When I was in high school, I had a good life, I had it going for me. I thought, you know, I want to help these people out. They are in poverty and whatnot. I never thought I’d be here and here I am eating where I used to volunteer,” Friese said.

“I am probably a better person for going through what they’ve been through…I’ve had so many bad experiences in my life that I’ve learned you have to stay positive… Just because I’m here doesn’t mean I’m going to be here the rest of my life,” Friese said.

Transportation contributes to hunger

“The reason the families don’t come here to eat is because of transportation. We have lousy public transportation, in almost every community throughout the entire country” Msgr Kelly said. “Families can’t get here, especially in the evening because all the buses all stop running,” Said Kelly.

Paula Lefferts is a senior resident of downtown Scranton and a frequent client of the St. Francis Kitchen.

Lefferts expressed some of the difficulties of transportation, especially in the winter, but was overall grateful for the aid she is able to receive.

“I don’t know how anyone can be hungry in Scranton. You have the soup kitchen, the pantries, and most people have food stamps,” said Lefferts.

However, sometimes the issues are not as simple. Paula admits receiving help is often difficult for senior citizens and handicapped individuals; however, she said seniors should take advantage of the free bus passes provided by the Lackawanna County Transit Authority. Catholic Social Services provides bus passes to clients in need. However, a lack of transportation often contributes to a dependence on convenience stores, which provide limited options at higher prices.

Volunteers work to put together meals at Saint Francis Soup Kitchen. Photo Credit: Elysabethe Brown

The Hispanic Community

Other stigmas working against the eradication of hunger in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area are transportation, language barriers, and (especially among the elderly) the application processes for aid.

“The Hispanic community is very hesitant to apply for anything for two reasons. One [reason] is they are not eligible for anything because they are undocumented.  And secondly, the issue is that they don’t believe that they are eligible or that they should be eligible, even though they are,” said Msgr. Kelly.

Saint Francis Soup Kitchen prides itself on the ability to feed every individual that comes to their kitchen. Saint Francis does not require their clients to fill out paperwork or provide proof of food insecurity. Kelly said there is a disconnect between government assistance and the Latino community. In many ways, the kitchen enables minority groups to receive assistance that they are often hesitant to take advantage of.

These stigmas are both cultural and situational. Kelly said that the kitchen does not see many children or families because, while they may benefit from the services provided, sometimes embarrassment and work schedules complicate the situations.

Stereotypes Overshadow the Positive

Issues of family stability also come into play. “I think the biggest issue is, like in any family, are you really ready to all get together and have a meal?” Kelly said that the community that forms among the clients is important because many who do not have families of their own

Northeastern Pennsylvania is not alone. Across the nation, those who do qualify for government assistance hesitate to apply because of embarrassment or complications with the application process. According to the National Priorities Project, about half of the individuals that are eligible for food stamps don’t apply.

However, despite the hardships surrounding poverty and hunger, many individuals, like Jim Friese, manage to stay positive.

Msgr. Kelly said “They [journalists] always want to hear the worst stories, they want me to say that I am seeing more clients than ever because the economy is bad. They want me to tell them about how many homeless people there are. That’s where the stories are. I think there is another side to all of this.”

The alternative story to be told here is of optimism, of progress, and of hope. The connection is clear in the hopeful words of Paula Lefferts and Jim Friese and in the community support of Saint Francis Kitchen.

Monsignor Joseph Kelly speaks about the social stigma of hunger.

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