IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Rebecca Ristrem sees hoards of the hungry every day.
As the eastern Idaho branch manager for the Idaho Foodbank, a donor-supported nonprofit with food distribution centers in Boise, Lewiston and Pocatello, it’s her job to make sure that the thousands of local people who seek help from local food banks and pantries get fed.
Though she ends her day knowing that at least some empty bellies were filled, she laments there are thousands of eastern Idahoans who will go to bed hungry.
Idaho Foodbank spokesman Mike Sharp, of Boise, knows exactly what that feel like.
“In 2008, I was working two part-time jobs, just trying to make ends meet and pay all of my bills,” Sharp said. “It’s a painfully stressful feeling to fall asleep not knowing where your next meal is coming from . Or even worse, not knowing where your kids’ (next meal) is coming from.”
Sharp said he “lucked out” and was able to get back on his feet, and turned from a client of the Idaho Foodbank to an employee.
But many in eastern Idaho haven’t had such luck.
In 2012, 17.8 percent of children younger than 18 in the Post Register’s 10-county coverage area went hungry because of restricted access to food.
That’s according to a 2014 study by Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that distributes donated food to food banks and pantries across the United States.
The study, titled “Map the Meal Gap,” took numbers from every county in the nation, including Bonneville, Bingham, Butte, Clark, Custer, Lemhi, Jefferson, Madison, Fremont and Teton counties.
The study found that 14.4 percent of adults in those counties also were food insecure. Food insecurity, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, means “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”
“It’s a nationwide problem,” Sharp said.
About 15.9 percent of the nation’s adult population has inadequate access to food, according to the study. About 21.6 percent of children younger than 18 also fall into that category.
Idaho’s overall food insecurity rate is 15.8 percent, according to the study. Idaho has a higher food insecurity rate than most of its neighboring states, with the exceptions of Nevada (16.8 percent) and Oregon (16.7 percent).
Sharp said many who fall into the category of being food insecure don’t fit the poverty stereotype.
“About one in six Idahoans at some point have gone without a meal because they fell short,” Sharp said. “A lot of people that we serve are doing everything right, working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, or having to buy medication instead of food.”
Idaho Falls Salvation Army Maj. James Halverson said people from all walks of life receive monthly “food boxes” from the organization. The Idaho Falls Salvation Army’s emergency food pantry is one of six food distribution centers in Idaho Falls that receives food from the Idaho Foodbank.
“We receive a lot of people who are working, but just need that little bump at the end of the month to get by,” Halverson said.
Katie Moon, who works as a financial officer for The Family Crisis Center in Rexburg, said the nonprofit largely deals with two populations — senior citizens on fixed incomes and large families with small incomes.
“It’s all ages, really,” Moon said. “We see a lot of big families who just need some extra help.”
The Family Crisis Center serves all of Madison County, which, according to the study, has the highest rate of adult food insecurity in the state, 20.9 percent.
Lemhi County has the highest child food insecurity rate in the state, at 27.2 percent.
Ristrem said in small communities such as those in Madison and Lemhi counties, many people are embarrassed to receive help from food banks and pantries.
“People believe that because of the great community engagement in eastern Idaho that hunger may not be a big problem,” Ristrem said. “But because the communities are smaller, people are more reluctant to ask for help.”
Some workers in eastern Idaho’s agriculture industry also are challenged to put food on the table, Ristrem said.
“We have a lot of seasonal workers in our area,” she said. “We all know that harvest time is a feast, but until we plant again, they can have trouble feeding their family. Though the work is seasonal, not all of those farm workers leave.”
Sharp said people who may have lost their jobs during the recession and are beginning to enter back into the workforce are especially challenged with food insecurity.
“You end up focusing on things you shouldn’t be focusing on,” Sharp said. “When you have to make decisions as to how you are going to balance paying bills and feeding your family, it interrupts your day multiple times. Your energy is going to go down and there’s a ton of concern and worry.”
Sharp said food insecurity also affects children’s performance in school.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
In an effort to help to eastern Idaho’s food insecure, dedicated volunteers donate their time, money and energy every day to feed their neighbors.
The Idaho Foodbank’s network includes 20 food banks and pantries throughout eastern Idaho. The Idaho Foodbank’s Pocatello distribution center, which serves southern and eastern Idaho, never experiences a slack period.
“We move almost 4 million pounds of food a year into eastern Idaho,” Ristrem said, “but according to the numbers we need about three times that much.”
Halverson said the Idaho Falls Salvation Army desperately needs donations.
“In the first six months of 2014, we’ve seen an increase of about 300 families per month seeking food assistance,” Halverson said. “We could always use more food.”
Ristrem said food banks and pantries in eastern Idaho try their hardest to feed as many as they can, but they can’t keep up with the growing hunger.
“I don’t know the reason but I know the need,” Ristrem said. “It’s very hard to feed the need that we have, and it keeps getting bigger. I see it every day.”