The number of Washington families struggling with hunger has risen through the recession, according to recent report by the Food and Research Action Center.
Nearly one in five of the almost half a million families polled said they struggled to afford food in 2009. The previous year, the hunger rate was 16 percent, two percentage points lower than now.
"The recession really has caused a lot more families to get to the point where they don't have enough to eat," said Linda Stone, senior food policy coordinator for Children's Alliance- a state group that advocates for the wellbeing of children. Intractable parts of a family budget such as rent, utilities and car expenses squeeze out money for meals.
With unemployment rates now in the double digits, it is not a surprise to see more people straining to afford the basics. According to Stone, individuals on fixed incomes, senior citizens with small pensions, those with language barriers or in distant, rural communities and families with young children are the most common demographics that encounter problems affording food.
To cope, many enlist in the Washington Basic Food Program, known as food stamps, or the Women Infant Children Program, which provides basics such as milk and eggs. Children can also sign up to receive breakfast and lunch at public school.
The Basic Food Program, which was revamped in 2008, now allows individuals to apply online and be interviewed for acceptance over the phone. Since the changes, it has seen a 50 percent rise with 850,000 families in the state receiving food stamps to purchase what the program refers to as "basic nutrition."
However, some still struggle to make do, especially at the end of the month, said Stone. They might need to go to a food bank as a last resort.
"You can go to a food bank pretty much every week if you need to. That's how a lot of families get it for the month," said Stone. "And so far they have really been able to help."
Peggy Bailey, operations manager of the Ballard Food Bank, has seen demand rise by 30 percent over the past year.
"A lot of people who are in our lines this year were donors last year," she said.
The food bank, which receives food largely through private donations and grocery store surplus, never turns anyone away.
Though, the common thread through all forms of food handouts is the risk of a lack of adequate nutrition.
"Healthy food costs more," said Stone. "You can certainly afford more top ramen and macaroni and cheese than fresh fruits and vegetables."
Because of underfunding, food programs cannot buy high quality foods.
One of the groups with the greatest food hardships is families with young children. Kids in their early years usually have young parents, which means less time having been established in the work force, and a greater need for governmental help.
Already, 42 percent of eligible school age children are signed up to receive free or reduced priced meal programs at school, according to Stone. Though, only 11 percent of those children enrolled have access to free meals in the summer.
Stone believes the lawmakers can help make a difference in this area. Child nutrition programs are up for reauthorization before Congress this year, so legislators will be required to rewrite the law governing meals available to children.
"We're asking state legislature to provide $250,000 grants to communities," said Stone. "We're in a terrible budget year but frankly we've got a lot of legislators this year who really get it." She said the investment would leverage $3 million to $4 million in federal money.
Washington second district Rep. Rick Larsen, proposed a bill in Dec. 2009 that would also provide after school snacks for children of low-income families. It would function as an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act, expanding federal reimbursement for organizations that provide after-school snacks.
"Our country has a moral obligation to make sure that kids get enough to eat every day," said Rep. Larsens in a Dec. 10 press release. "Improving nutrition for low-income kids helps them perform better in school and avoid serious health problems down the road."
By ticking off the list of available food sources in the Seattle area, it is possible to stay fed, even if it is with great difficulty and without ideal nutrition. However, the greater problem of poverty remains.