‘The poor live among us’

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It's not easy being poor in Northern Virginia. According to Zillow, a website that tracks real estate prices, the average monthly rent for an apartment in Fairfax County is $1,950. It's not much better in Loudoun County where monthly rent is $1,900. If the head of a family is making minimum wage, a large percentage of their monthly income is going to pay for housing. Food is often a secondary consideration.

To address the problem of food insecurity, diocesan Catholic Charities parish liaisons met at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna Jan. 28. This quarterly meeting addressed hunger in the diocese and the Catholic response.

Food insecurity means that members of a household do not have enough nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.

"You don't have to be starving to death to be food insecure," said Catherine Hassinger, director of community services for Arlington Catholic Charities.

Hassinger said that more than 230,000 people in the boundaries of the Arlington Diocese are considered food insecure. The percentage of people who are hungry in the diocese ranges from 5.2 percent in Loudoun County to 14.2 percent in Richmond County.

There are government programs to help people get nutritious food for themselves and their children, said Hassinger.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is one of the oldest programs with its roots in post-depression United States. There are gross and net income requirements, with monthly benefits ranging from $194 for one person to $1,169 for a family of eight.

SNAP also is available to legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years. Refugees and people admitted into the country for humanitarian reasons may be eligible for SNAP immediately.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) helps women who are pregnant, postpartum or breast-feeding. The program also benefits infants under one year and children less than 5 years old. Eligibility is based on income. Benefits range from $2,426 a month for a family of two, to $6,181 a month for a family of eight. There is a WIC approved food list that mothers must adhere to.

Going food shopping with WIC or even SNAP can be an intimidating process. Hassinger has heard from clients who have said that grocery checkout clerks often tell people in line, "This is not approved. You can't buy this."

It's not cigarettes and beer; you can't buy potatoes or canned vegetables that include white potatoes on WIC.

The other options for food assistance, said Hassinger, are food pantries like those supported by Catholic Charities, which rely on donations and allows clients to "shop" for food.

"This is a more dignified model," said Hassinger.

But charities cannot do the job alone. She said that only one in 24 bags of groceries for food assistance comes from organizations like Catholic Charities. Government food programs provide the other 23.

Hassinger concluded her talk by saying poverty and hunger are real in our communities.

"The poor live among us," she said.

She also challenged attendees to try and appreciate what many families in our communities face.

"Eat cereal for one week with water, not milk," she said. "Download the WIC food guide, and only purchase items on that list."

Vince Cannava, parish outreach specialist for Catholic Charities' St. Lucy Project, spoke about the diocesan network of food pantries.

The St. Lucy Project is Catholic Charities food distribution network, with a warehouse in Manassas as its main hub.

Cannava said that the St. Lucy Project expands the food capability and increases reliability in parish food pantries. He said that parish support is critical in their response to hunger in the diocese.

The conference concluded with food pantry reports by Michelle Knight, social justice and outreach manager at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington and Jim Berry from the St. Faustina and St. Matthew food pantries in Fredericksburg.

Paul De Rosa is the plant manager and the parish liaison at St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield. These quarterly meetings are important for his liaison work.

"These are wonderful," said De Rosa. "It's a great way to disseminate information."

There were 58 participants representing 33 parishes at the meeting. All had hopes that they could identify and help the poor among us.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015