A few years ago, Derrick Bunting worked a minimum-wage job – and at one point two jobs – to keep a roof overhead and food on the table for himself and his three children.
Often, the 41-year-old Gilbert resident fell short on the food.
“By the time the bills were paid, we didn’t have any money for food,” the single dad said. “I went like three to four months with it really bad. When I say bad, I mean no food in the refrigerator, no food in my cabinets.”
His mother would help out when she could, but often Bunting would go hungry so his kids could eat.
“It affected their grades, their sleeping habits,” he said. “My kids couldn’t hardly go to bed, and focus when their tummies were growling.”
Arizona ranked 12th worse in the country for food insecurity and sixth worse nationally for child-food insecurity, according to United Food Bank, which serves the East Valley and much of eastern Arizona. The Mesa nonprofit reported nearly 225,000 people, with more than 84,000 children are food insecure in its service area.
Widespread food insecurity explains why Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, and food banks have designated September as Hunger Action Month – a time when Americas are urged to help take action on the national hunger crisis.
Food insecurity as defined by the federal government is the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Food insecurity is dropping in Arizona, although it is still higher than the country as a whole, according to a recent annual report from Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.
The overall food insecurity rate in the United States in 2016 was 12.9 percent with an estimated 1 in 8 Americans short of food, equating to 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, according to Feeding America.
And, though food insecurity rates have fallen, the need among people who remain food insecure continues to rise, the group said.
In the latest available data for 2016, Arizona saw a 14.9 percent food insecurity rate – down from 15.8 percent in 2015 and 17.1 percent in 2014, according to the Map the Meal Gap study, which breaks the numbers down by county and by congressional districts.
Congressional District 5, which includes Gilbert, Queen Creek, parts of Chandler and east Mesa, also saw a drop to 13.3 percent in 2016 from 13.4 percent in 2015 and 14.8 percent in 2014.
United Food Bank CEO Dave Richins attributed the drop to an improving economy, more job prospects and to food banks.
“We are making progress on this issue,” Richins said, adding that United Food Bank has helped make a striking impact through its programs and outreach in helping Arizonans out of poverty throughout its 19,000-square-mile service area covering five counties.
Food insecurity in those five counties ranges from a low of 13.9 percent of the population in Pinal County to 25.5 percent in Apache County. Maricopa County’s was 14.3 percent, according to the study.
United Food Bank provides food in two ways: via free, emergency food boxes, and through the Help Yourself Program, a co-op program where people on fixed or limited income buy food boxes containing 15 to 20 pounds of different meats and produce for $20. People also can pick from a variety of free items like breads, pastries, dairy and deli products.
“The Help Yourself Program is more of a complete grocery-store experience than an emergency food box, which are shelf-stable foods like dry pasta, peanut butter and canned foods,” Richins said.
In fiscal year 2015-16, the food bank distributed 26,047,312 pounds of food totaling 21,706,093 meals to hungry people.
Bunting said because of the Help Yourself Program, his kids are eating better – fresh fruits and vegetables and meat instead of the canned and processed foods like Top Ramen, beans and fish sticks.
Every Friday, Bunting buys his groceries at the food bank’s Javelina Volunteer Annex near Javelina Avenue and Mesa Drive.
“I have fresh produce,” Bunting said. “All my kids are earning straight “As” because they are eating produce, they are eating what comes from the ground and not canned and processed food because your budget requires you to do it.”
He said the program helps his budget and he is able to make a car payment with ease now.
Although he is earning more money as a salesman at a Chandler car dealership, he still uses the program because his family has grown to include a fiancée who has three children.
Many people who show up Fridays for United Food Bank’s program are described as working poor, Richins said.
Feeding America cited recent government data that found 58 percent of people at the risk of going hungry live in households that earn more than the federal poverty level such as single mom Jennifer Bottali who worked full time and was on a tight budget.
“I found myself skipping meals to stretch the dollars,” said the Gilbert mom of a daughter. “This went on for years, just making it work. It was like playing a shell game, robbing from one thing to pay another.”
She had earned too much to qualify for emergency food assistance and soon learned about the Help Yourself Program.
But it took her some time to set aside her pride and walk through the door to ask for help. The former New Yorker and her husband once earned a six-figure income until illness and divorce left her struggling.
The day Bottali went to the program, she left with more groceries than she’d had at one time in ages.
“I was so emotional,” she said. “I hadn’t seen that much food at one time in so long.”
Bottali went to Help Yourself for a short time, and then returned off and on, whenever she needed extra budget help.
United Food Bank also helps seniors, people with disabilities and single people, Richins said.
“Both seniors and disabled folks – because they can’t just get a job to make more money – we see these folks on a regular basis,” he said. “Families and individuals a lot less so. Our stats tell us three visits.”
Richins is hopeful the numbers will continue to drop, but some of that will rely on the economy, he noted.
“If the economy tanks again, we are dealing with people out of work,” he said. “There’s a correlation between the unemployment rate and food-insecurity rate.”
Despite Arizona’s nearly 1 percent drop in the food-insecurity rate in 2016 from the prior year, Richins isn’t claiming victory.
“We have lot of work left to do,” he said. But “we have a system in place to continue to chip away at this.”