Hunger doesn't take a holiday


A report is one thing. Reality is another.

John Grden comes face to face with it each day as executive director of the Franciscan Outreach Program at Transfiguration Parish in Southfield, Mich.

Monday John and some of his 18 volunteers bagged food for families who might otherwise have no dinner for Christmas. "I know how the news media keeps telling us that everything is getting better," says John. "But if I was the one gauging it, I would tell you it’s not."

For more than 50 years, people of faith in Southfield have been serving people in need. Founded at Duns Scotus as the Franciscan Poverty Program (and later moved to Transfiguration), it started with aid to 12 families referred to friar Martin Humphreys. Last month volunteers in the church basement distributed food to 1,000 families – and the list keeps growing. The help first extended one Christmas has become a year-round lifeline for families in Metro Detroit. "They come from all over," says friar-helper Philip Wilhelm, who unloads food, packs groceries and helps folks upstairs. No one is ever turned away.

"Every month I see more clients than I saw the previous month," says John. "We’re talking about whether we can open another day or change hours so we can serve more people. My answer to a reporter about whether things are better would be, ‘Not if you’re a senior on a fixed income.’ I’m seeing more and more seniors coming here."

Unemployment is down, so people are better off, right? Not according to John.

"The government tells seniors there is no inflation, so they’re not getting a cost-of-living increase. The rationale is, gas prices are down. They [government] haven’t gone to a grocery store and seen the price of eggs and milk going through the roof. Last year you could get a carton of eggs for $1.19 at Sam’s Club; today it’s $3.19."

Ironically, "The government doesn’t suffer from a lack of programs to feed people, but we seem to suffer getting the word out that these programs exist. You have to dig and search. They make it difficult to find them. I think that’s ridiculous."

Fighting words, but if one thing riles John, it’s wastefulness. "I see people in need and I question why we can’t take care of our own," regardless of age. "We have 200,000 people getting food stamps [in this area]. People make an assumption that if you’re getting food stamps, you’re all set. The reality is, the government has cut back on those allocation amounts so people aren’t getting the amount of money they used to get," and fall short each month.

"A food bank like us serves as an important resource so they can stretch that. We can’t feed them for the month, either. But maybe the combination of this and their food card allows them to get through the month." Postulant Dan Ward volunteers here because "I like the idea of being with the poor and with the community. As a Franciscan, you’re gonna be interacting with a lot of people in need and it’s important to be comfortable with that."

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that need. "You can tell when a person is embarrassed to be here," John says. "It’s nothing they say; it’s the way they act. They tend to talk quietly and don’t want anyone to hear." To make things easier, "We try not to ask anything personal. We collect a minimum amount of information so we can do the reports we have to do." If a client answers "yes" to the question, "I am in need of emergency food," then, "You’re automatically qualified. That could be any of us. Maybe I’m doing great today, but something major happens and I’m in trouble."

What does John want for Christmas? "I’d like to see my business falling off. A good day would be the day that nobody would need food." Unfortunately, "That’s not gonna happen."