The first visit to the food bank is always the hardest, Michelle Venus, 52, said.
“Not while I was there,” she said. “But before and after.”
Four years earlier, she had been a homeowner in a US$75,000 a year job. She had donated to the food bank’s fundraising drives. Now she was there to pick up food she could not afford to buy.
“It was not what I’d expected for myself or from myself. It was just a really hard day,” she said.
Mark Weaver, 54, the former chairman of nearby Loveland chamber of commerce, tried to avoid the gaze of acquaintances he had met when he attended the food bank’s galas.
“It was very humiliating,” he says. “I used to take clients to their events, and all of a sudden I’m living below the poverty line.”
He used to earn a six-figure salary, plus commission, plus benefits, and also chaired the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, which lobbied local politicians on behalf of the business community. He made up his mind to go to the food bank after a friend, a well-paid software engineer who had also fallen on hard times, told him to “get over being proud.”
The queue at the Larimer County food bank in Fort Collins, a town of 147,000 in northern Colorado, snakes out of the door and is mostly silent. In line there are slightly more people than trolleys. The number of families visiting here has increased more than 50 percent over the last five years. On average they also visit more often and need more food than previously.
In the parking lot there are only two bumper stickers — one for Mitt Romney and one for the US Navy. Inside it is set up like a grocery store. People take what they need, although there are limits for some of items such as bread. From the outside, if you did not know it was a food bank, you might think they were going to the cinema.
People often think they know what poverty looks like until they end up here, and then they realize that it looks like them and many other people that they know. Weaver lives in a nice area. The first he knew that his next-door neighbor was struggling with his mortgage payments was when his house was foreclosed on and he was moving out.
The official poverty rate in the US has risen 19 percent since 2000 with just under one in seven Americans now poor and one in five reporting that they did not have enough money to buy food last year.
However, since the beginning of the financial crisis it is the “precarity rate” that has really taken off — the number of people who feel economically precarious. Those who fear poverty, look it straight in the eye at the end of every month, face a constant battle to avoid it or slip in and out of it while struggling to retain every semblance of middle-class stability. People who may have high-school diplomas, college degrees, pensions, good credit and mortgages, juggling aspiration and reality, who find themselves one lay-off or an illness away from a steep and dizzying descent into hardship.
More than the half the people who use the Larimer County Food Bank, which is based in Fort Collins, are working. One in 10 have at least a college degree, almost a third have no health insurance and more than half have unpaid medical bills.
“There’s been a real difference, not only in the number of people that we serve in recent years,” the food bank’s executive director Amy Pezzani explains. “But also in the kind of people we serve.”