April 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

Hungry quietly try to get by with less

Hungry people generally don't announce themselves.

They form silent lines at food pantries. They pay quietly with Bridge cards. They do not like to tell their stories in public, which is why you have read so few of them.

Anna Calhoun, though, has gotten to the point where disbelief outweighs any sense of embarrassment. And as "Unity 2012" — a national summit of food banks — converges on Detroit today, she finds herself grappling with the latest in a sequence of setbacks she and her husband have faced since losing their jobs during Michigan's decade-long economic winter.

Last month, in one of the deaths from a thousand cuts she's experienced, Calhoun received a brief letter from the state, informing her that the $94 a month in food assistance the state had been providing was no more. Three months before that, the food assistance for her, her husband, her son and stepdaughter had been cut from $232 a month.

The caseworker couldn't explain the basis, but Calhoun got on a computer and looked up the code: As full-time students, the Calhouns no longer qualified for food assistance.

Thank you, Michigan Legislature, she thought: Students were eliminated from the food stamp program in a string of laws and policies that cut back economic benefits for the poor last year.

No bad news is entirely unexpected these days, Calhoun says. She and her husband — he declined to have his name published — are among the state's 700,000 or so economic casualties in the last decade. Her job, as a clerical worker at Wayne State University, which she loved, was eliminated in February 2011.

To save money, the family moved in with Calhoun's mother, who suffers from dementia. With two children in their home, a 12-year-old girl and 18-year-old boy, the worries about money are unending.

"I don't lack in drive or education," says Calhoun, who has an associate's degree in pre-elementary education, and is working on a degree in human services at Baker College.

But she cannot find a job, despite a year of trying.

She and her husband, who is studying culinary arts, are on a mission: to gain the skills and credentials that will enable them to stave off a future of being forever poor.

In the meantime, food is a problem that requires increasing amounts of resourcefulness and energy.

Susan Goodall, the CEO of Forgotten Harvest Inc., the Oak Park-based food rescue operation, says neither food stamps nor food banks and rescues are closing the gap. "It's hard for us to say that things are getting better when we cannot provide enough food for people in line," Goodall says.

The Calhouns are the people in line: They go to a nearby food pantry at a church. "I would rather starve than see my kids go hungry," she says.

The family attends food auctions at the Taylor Town Trade Center, where people bid on lots of overstocked food at low prices. They prepare their own food and avoid processed foods.

Over the last two years, Forgotten Harvest has doubled its ability to deliver rescued food, going from 23 million pounds in 2011 to a projected 40 million pounds this year.

Gleaners Food Bank delivers more than 40 million pounds. Both organizations are hosts for this week's national conference at the Renaissance Marriott that brings together food charity executives. But the needs, says Goodall, aren't being filled.

Even if the Calhouns received food stamps, they would be hard-pressed to meet their needs. "Everything is so expensive," says Calhoun. "Even $90 a month would enable my son to get what he needs."

Calhoun is trying to climb back up the ladder. But she's baffled by the thinking that punishes her son and stepdaughter for having two parents trying to gain the background and skills they need to emerge from circumstances they never, ever thought would reach them.


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