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Hunger study finds 1 in 8 residents aided by Tarrant Area Food Bank in early 2009

More Tarrant County-area families struggled to put food on the table as the economic downturn took hold in North Texas last year, according to a hunger study released Tuesday.

One in 8 residents received emergency food aid through the Tarrant Area Food Bank during the first four months of 2009, according to figures detailed in the national study, Hunger in America 2010.

The report by the nonprofit Feeding America said that nationally, 37 million people relied on food banks and hunger relief groups last year. The study details programs that are part of the Feeding America network of food banks.

"I think we may forget in this rich nation that we do have people who are less fortunate than us," said Andrea Helms, spokeswoman for the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

The economic slump has forced families to pay bills instead of buying food, Helms said. Layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs have plunged families into poverty or closer to it. Food banks, pantries and soup kitchens responded by helping more families, Helms said.

In 2009, the Tarrant Area Food Bank and its 13-county network of emergency food providers served about 280,000 people, compared with 158,000 in 2005 when the last hunger study was conducted by Feeding America.

Among other key findings for the Tarrant area in the study, based on 61,000 interviews and 37,000 surveys, are:

About 41 percent of households seeking food aid in the Tarrant County area said they have less money for food and have reduced their food intake.

About 49 percent of those surveyed said they have had to choose between buying food and buying gasoline.

Fifty-two percent said they have had to choose between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage.

The study also found an increase in the percentage of local schoolchildren participating in free and reduced-price lunch programs. In early 2009, 73 percent of families interviewed reported that their children participated in the program -- up from 65 percent in 2005.

The findings mirror what area social service agencies have been experiencing.

At Mission Arlington, which doesn't partner with the Tarrant Area Food Bank, about 220 families are helped per day -- up from about 150 before 2009. More children are hungry, said Tillie Burgin, executive director of Mission Arlington.

"We have had some children who didn't eat from Friday until Monday when they went back to school," Burgin said.

She said many families feed their youngsters primarily through schools' free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast programs.

In North Richland Hills, the Community Enrichment Center has also been trying to help more people, said Ron Parish, the center's director of community ministries.

The center's food pantry, which partners with the Tarrant Area Food Bank, serves about 1,000 people from 15 Northeast Tarrant County ZIP codes each month. Overall, the number of people seeking help from the center was up about 20 percent from 2008 to 2009. Many people seeking help are first-timers.

"It's really hard on people to get to the point to say, 'I have to ask for help.'"

DIANE SMITH, 817-390-7675

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