Hard Choices

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We met up with Becky Wolfe in Greensboro last fall, but the recent low temperatures made us think of our conversation about low-income household’s hard choices between heating and eating.

If there is anything Becky Wolfe is known for, it is for being direct.

Her no-nonsense and prudent approach has made her a stern mother of sorts to many who live on the streets of Greensboro. We knew that if we wanted to learn about how people experiencing homelessness managed to find food, Becky would be a good person to ask.

“When someone is new out here, the first thing you need to do is teach them where all the meals are,” she says.The Greensboro community has done an outstanding job creating a network of food locations, anchored around Second Harvest’s partner programs at Greensboro Urban Ministry, which serves two meals every day and an extensive network of churches and community groups. Second Harvest in fact works with over 100 partner programs in Guilford County alone, where 19% of residents are food insecure.

Now that she is housed, Becky rarely goes to these meals any more, or if she does, it is to volunteer. “I feel like I don’t want to take from those who really need it,” she says.

Becky’s story is absolutely a success story. It wasn’t long ago that Becky had lost her home and moved into a motel and from the motel into a homeless camp downtown. But through hard work and the support of local non-profits and homeless advocates, she has now had her own small apartment for over a year now.

While a vast improvement over previous years during the height of the recession, Becky still lives on a very small income as she works part-time in a print shop. While the unemployment rate continues to, thankfully, decrease in the United States, a new troubling trend has emerged: the number of involuntary part-time workers has increased by 45% since 2007.

Becky’s years living on the streets of Greensboro are fresh in her mind, however. “It was hard, but I figured out how to cook just about anything anyone wanted,” she says about living in a homeless camp in the woods behind a hardware store. “We had a cook stove, so I could make spaghetti, hamburgers, sausage dogs. I was the cook of the camp.” Becky, originally from Kentucky, is a southerner through-and-through. This means that cooking hearty meals is in her blood and part of her maternal instinct.

Cooking familiar dishes and favorites was important to Becky and her camp-mates beyond just nutrition: it reminded them of home.

Becky explains that the people living in the camp pooled their resources to get food, but now that she is housed and living independently, she finds it much harder to make ends meet while alone. “I make do fine, and I am fortunate, but it is still hard.”

Becky explains that after rent, utilities, her phone bill and bus passes, she uses what she has left over for food, but sometimes it isn’t much. Living independently comes with its costs. “When I turn the heat on this winter, I might start needing to go back to the church meals, because that bill is going to eat up every penny.”

Becky is not alone in her concerns over paying for her utilities. A 2014 Feeding America poll discovered that 69% of people surveyed said that they had to choose between food or utility bills in the last year; 34% responded that they were making this difficult decision every month.

In Guilford County, where Becky lives, 71% of people seeking food assistance from our partner programs say that they have had choose between buying groceries and paying for utilities.

The average Southeastern household spends roughly 3% of their income on electrical costs, according to one study. However, low-income families spend as much as 20% of their take-home pay on electricity. “The trouble with that is you can’t just pay part of your bill each month,” says Becky. “But you can just buy less food.”

Google Maps and Appalachian Voices worked together to create a map demonstrating electrical costs throughout the Southeast here.

If come winter Becky does find that she needs to return to the churches and Second Harvest partner agencies for meals, she insists that she will go early to set up the chairs and tables and stay late to clean up.

“That’s important to me. I don’t know a soul who wants to take things for free.”

Learn more about food insecurity and hard choices in each of the 18 counties that Second Harvest Food Bank by selecting the county you are interested in and selecting “County Fact Sheet.”

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#hunger #NWNC #FoodBank #GuilfordCounty #Greensboro #GreensboroUrbanMinistries #heating #Choices #LowIncome #foodinsecurity #PartnerAgencies #Working #NC

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