Earlier this spring, Feeding America released a report on the growing number of people who are hungry, spotlighting that part of our new landscape pocked by foreclosures, lower wages, higher costs and persistent unemployment. Food insecurity is the official term. It doesn't mean you can't afford food all of the time. It means you can't afford food some of the time. The end of a pay period. When the electric bill's due. It means difficult decisions and no easy answers. The national food insecurity rate is 16.6 percent of the population. That's more than 50 million Americans. The Florida food insecurity rate is 17.1 percent. In Hernando County it's 18.4. This is the hungriest place in the Tampa Bay area.
On the ground, where those numbers are people, it looks like beans in cans on the sparsely stocked shelves in the food pantry at the local charity called Love Your Neighbor.
It looks like the people waiting in the line outside. Tottering gaits with floppy socks and Velcro shoes. Gray hair and eyes that have to squint to see what's written on labels.
It looks like the sun setting over Da-Mac Estates, a north-of-town neighborhood with an economy that runs on public assistance and private addiction, where on a dead-end road in a single-wide mobile home the 12-year-old daughter of Jeremey and Tanya Bos stands at a stove in the corner and cooks buck-a-box spaghetti with Great Value red sauce and a treat of turkey meatballs bought on super sale for $3.49.
Dinner for six.
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Jeremey Bos was a troublemaker as a boy born and raised outside of Chicago. He didn't finish high school and later moved to Tennessee. He has Medicaid-paid dentures at 31 years old and tattoos drawn thick on both arms. One says SAVED. One says MAN OF GOD. Across the fronts of his fingers is a green-ink proclamation to himself as much as anybody else. GOOD LIFE. His biggest tattoo, though, is of an angel, with one wing of an angel and the other of a demon.
Good and bad, he says, bad and good. "Way I see everyone."
He still smokes slim Action cigars, dollar a pack, pack a day, but four years ago, he says, he stopped doing drugs and started going to church. Clean. But even when he was using, first marijuana, then cocaine, finally crack, even when it got so bad that sucks from the pipe made pieces of his teeth fall from his head — even then, he says, he could support himself, and Tanya, and their four children.
He could hammer nails. He could paint walls. He could carry heavy stuff to where somebody needed it to be. Short on high-tech, information-age skills, but still mostly reliable and earnest. A worker.
That used to be enough.
They were never rich. If Jeremey and Tanya Bos were in the middle class, they were in the lower part of it, but Jeremey paid rent, and he paid bills, and she took care of the kids, and there was a dining room and in it were a table and chairs. They could order Chinese. They could go to the Opry Mills mall. When one of his kids asked him to have something, he says, he could say yes.
One year, not five years back, they cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 45 homeless folks living in Nashville's Riverfront Park. Warm spaghetti and chili on a cold afternoon.
Now they're here in Hernando because it's a place to stay. They live in Jeremey's uncle's mobile home. His kids live in one small room. The two boys share a bed. The two girls share a pullout couch.
It's important they go to school Monday through Friday because there they get breakfast and lunch.
• • •
Can we agree on the most broad-brush basics of how we got here? America got rich in the 20 years after World War II because America was the winner. There was no competition. But the middle class — the reality, not the ideal — started slipping in the '70s. People maintained a certain standard of living with credit cards, second incomes and then real estate.
The Great Recession capped the long erosion of this front.
The middle class, defined as households with incomes ranging from $35,000 to $99,000, peaked at 53 percent of the population in 1969, according to an analysis the U.S. News & World Report did late last year. It was 49.3 percent in 1980, 47.9 percent in 1990, 45.6 percent in 2000, 43.7 percent in 2009. More people were going down than up.
Last year, as corporate profits grew at their most rapid clip since 1950, a record number of Americans got food stamps.
One in six Americans is hungry. Children? One in five. Feeding America, the country's biggest network of food banks, in 2006 helped feed 25 million people — in 2010, 37 million.
It's former homeowners who now live in apartments, or cars, or outside. It's their kids. It's men who live in tents in the woods. It's the elderly whose fixed incomes used to be sufficient, barely, but now are not. Electric light or food? Running water or food? Prescriptions or dinner? A roof or a meal? Pick.
"It's everyone," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America. "We're seeing a new face of hunger: a lot of people who've had the rug pulled out from under them."
That's true nationally. That's true regionally.
Pat Rogers, the executive director of Feeding America Tampa Bay, says her statistics show roughly 40 percent black, 40 percent white and 20 percent Hispanic. "All walks of life," she said.
"What we're seeing now," said Kathy Mullen, of the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank in Land O'Lakes in Pasco County, "is folks who finished high school and went to college and bought a couple cars and bought a house . . ."
And that's true too in Hernando.
Who's hungry? "Where do you start?" said Kathy Jones, the executive director of the United Way in the county. "We see families who used to have two incomes and now have a half of one. 'I've never had to do this before.' Those are words I hear all the time."
The man who runs the food distribution at Love Your Neighbor, John Rudny, the other day said with some astonishment that he had heard there are 26 food pantries in Hernando.
He'd heard wrong. There are more.
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There's Bread of Life. There's Eden Baptist. There's Covenant Christian Church of God. There's Forest Oaks Lutheran and First United Methodist and Weeki Wachee Chapel and the Salvation Army and Jericho Road Ministries. More than three dozen.
Jeremey and Tanya Bos have been to Jericho Road. They've been to Love Your Neighbor.
Usually, though, they somehow can make do with $862 a month of food stamps. Divide that by six people, then three meals a day, then 30 days in a month, and it's $1.59 per person per meal. Feeding America says the average cost of a meal in Florida is $2.62. Even accounting for the meals the kids get at school, the food stamps don't cover that. So they don't run the air-conditioning. They open the windows. They don't have cable. They rent movies from the library. They clip coupons. They shop for produce and frozen stuff at Walmart and for boxed stuff and canned goods at Save-A-Lot and for deals on meat and dairy at Winn-Dixie.
Jeremey makes a smoothie for breakfast and often doesn't eat lunch. Tanya drinks coffee until dinner. Dinner? Chili, noodles, hamburger pie. Hopefully a meat, a vegetable and a side, at least until near the end of the month when it might be macaroni and cheese and hot dogs from an 89-cent pack.
"You stretch it at the end," Jeremey said.
The kids ever go to bed hungry?
"No," Tanya said.
You and Jeremey ever go to bed hungry?
"Yeah," she said.
On a recent morning, she went to Save-A-Lot, where she pushed her cart up and down the aisles, taking off the shelves canned sweet peas for 79 cents, Creamy Tuna Skillet Masters for 79 cents, six packs of chicken-flavored Ramen Noodles for 89 cents, oatmeal cookies for 99 cents, Golden Puffs cereal for 99 cents, a box of instant potatoes for $1.29.
The total tab was $39.59 of food stamps.
But she didn't take the food home. She took it to Love Your Neighbor.
• • •
Outside Love Your Neighbor, on a tray in the front, there were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches waiting in plastic bags. Inside, in the thrift store, there were racks of jackets and slacks and sneakers and heels, old phones and dusty books, mugs that said WORLD'S BEST GRANDMA, #1 Teacher and Home Sweet Home. A pink Barbie purse. A stuffed animal alligator with a message in red letters: It's A Jungle Out There.
The food Tanya bought with almost 5 percent of her family's monthly food stamp allotment went onto those sparsely stocked shelves in the back.
Federal assistance made local.
She said they helped others when they had a little more. She said they help others when they have a little less.
Jeremey was over in the thrift store organizing books and clothes. When he can't find odd-job work, he volunteers his time.
"I know a lot of people out there who are a lot worse," he said.
"And I still believe if you give something," he said, "eventually it's going to come back."
Last year, just before Christmas, Jeremey didn't have the money to pay the water bill, and Tanya put on Craigslist a desperate want ad asking for help. A stranger paid the $102.
"It comes back," Jeremey said again.
After he finished organizing the books and clothes, he went outside, sat on a stoop and smoked one of his Action cigars. He started a conversation with a woman, who told him she knew of a local paving company with an open job and also somebody who needed yard work done. She wrote a couple of phone numbers on a piece of paper and gave it to Jeremey.
He thanked her and folded it up and put it in his pocket.
News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.