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The Front Lines of the Hunger Fight

Mhari Saito

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A free gallon of milk
(Mhari Saito)
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I went to talk to folks on the front lines of the hunger battle, and showed up at the Cleveland Food Bank to meet Ann Shotwell. I thought I was on time for our 9:45 a.m. appointment, but by the time I got there, she was already shopping.

Miss Shotwell, as everyone here calls her, knows it pays to be early. She comes to the huge warehouse a couple times a week to stock up for the hot meals she cooks at Cleveland's Morningstar Baptist Church. By the time I walk in to the bright, clean market, she's already scored her best deal: 15 pounds of Dunkin' Donuts coffee.

"We don't get coffee too often, because it costs too much money," Shotwell says. "But they had coffee here today, and I raided this -- and for 14 cents a pound, we can have coffee for a while."

Shotwell gets $250 from the county to feed 150 people a hot, multi-course meal three times a month. She even serves seconds. It's a job she gets done with free and low-cost food from the Cleveland Food Bank.

"No hot dogs. No hamburgers," Shotwell says, looking down the metal shelves lined with dry goods and a walk-in fridge full of frozen meats and produce. "We always have two meats, potatoes, spaghetti, green beans, corn -- we feed a balanced meal."

The number of hungry people getting food from places like Shotwell's is climbing fast. Last year, local agencies in this region served a million more people than in 2006. Fifty-seven new hunger programs opened in Cleveland just last year, and many of them are in the suburbs.

Shotwell has been seeing other changes: "At one time, youngsters appeared to be ashamed to come stand in line to eat," she says. "But now they open the door -- and that's because they just don't have it at home now. They used to just make it with whatever bit was at home, but now I have teenagers and I have early 20s that are coming in. And that's something new."

Shotwell says she's heard lots of reasons why more people are coming in. Some diners say it's because of higher food and gas prices. Others say there aren't enough good jobs, and folks are losing their homes in foreclosure.

There's another alarming trend: At the same time demand is increasing, food donations are dropping. "We used to get things that may have been mislabeled or getting near their expiration date," says the Cleveland Food Bank's Karen Pozna. "A lot of times now, retailers are selling that product to discount stores."

Pozna says the food bank will sometimes buy food to make up the difference, but food is getting too expensive. "We don't buy cheese right now, because it's not the best buy for us," Pozna says.

Shotwell looks across the Cleveland Food Bank and sees a worker open up a box of frozen hams. She's there to claim it almost instantly.

"You never know what they are going to drop off in here," she says, then turns to the clerk: "I need that ham."

"Yes ma'm," he says, and puts it next to the coffee on her cart.

With the growing number of people coming in, Shotwell likes to keep turkey and ham in the freezer and peanut butter and jelly in the cupboards for emergency sandwiches. "We have hungry people," she says. "We don't have that group of people that's eating because you got a free meal somewhere -- I have people that needs the food."

This coming Wednesday, Shotwell's serving Italian sausage and potatoes. She's now looking for her sides. Before she leaves, she tells people here that over the weekend, they better be on the lookout for green beans for her diners.


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  • By April Adamson

    From Los Angeles, CA, 01/03/2009

    What a wonderful woman. Thank you for this inspiring story.

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