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Norfolk Finding it Hard to Keep Food on the Table

December 17, 1991

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ W.L. Robinson Jr. says he’s eaten at every soup kitchen in the city since he lost his job at a fast-food restaurant three weeks ago.

″In that time I’ve been to every shelter, every mission,″ Robinson, 32, said as he waited Monday night for the Salvation Army dinner truck to make its Norfolk rounds. ″I walk 50 miles or more every day.″

He is among the newly hungry in Norfolk, which a survey identifies as the city with the fastest-growing hunger problem in the nation.

Charles Jenkins, 43, waited with Robinson. He lost his construction job six months ago and said he catches the dinner truck ″sometimes, when I can get here. At least they’re trying to feed us.″

″This last year has been one of the toughest years we’ve ever experienced,″ said Leslie Davis of the Food Bank of Southeastern Virginia, which supplied 6 million pounds of food during the year to Norfolk and four neighboring cities.

″Food banking gets caught whenever the economy is soft because donations are down - food and cash - yet there are more and more people who need our services,″ Ms. Davis said. ″Food stamps simply aren’t enough.″

On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington released a survey of 28 cities that showed a 26 percent increase during the year in emergency food assistance requests. Norfolk was at the top of the list with a 132 percent increase.

Noel Finney, a Norfolk Social Services official, questioned the figure. He said it was calculated by a regional planning agency that counted anyone who asked for food assistance.

″It’s not based on eligibility criteria,″ he said. ″I think it’s a little bit skewed, myself.″

But he agreed with Norfolk Mayor Joseph A. Leafe, who said ″there clearly are more people who are seeking food assistance.″

Norfolk, with a population of about 268,000, has seen a 17 percent increase in food stamp applications this year. As of November, 37,593 Norfolk residents in 15,980 households received food stamps, Finney said.

The food bank provides 177,680 emergency meals each month, and 55 percent go to children, Ms. Davis said. Private or church-operated shelters and soup kitchens serve most of the meals, she said.

Homeless shelters increasingly take in families rather than individuals, and soup kitchens now feed people who hold marginal jobs or who have been laid off. ″We’re starting to see middle-class people who have never needed assistance before,″ Ms. Davis said.

″More people in minimum-wage jobs are seeking help,″ said Carol Jarvis, the food bank’s vice president. ″People who are one paycheck away (from being broke), if they have their hours cut back, then this throws them into an emergency.″

Jonathan Barton, who headed a statewide survey for the Virginia Congress on Hunger, said a million emergency meals are served across the state each month.

″Very few of the providers indicated that they had enough resources to meet the current need,″ he said.

The mayors’ survey said in 79 percent of the cities, emergency food assistance centers had to turn hungry people away.

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