RICHARDSON, Tex. — Across the street from a block-long slab of alabaster and stucco that is the nation's largest BMW dealership is a cluster of cramped offices where sacks of rice are piled in the carpeted hallways and the clients hide their faces from visitors.
This is where food is given out to the jobless, the busted and the luckless of what was one of the most affluent communities in Texas, a state fallen on hard times.
"When I came here I was used to dealing with your stereotypic, inner-city welfare recipients--single-parent families who'd been on welfare for three or four generations," said Ginger York, social work director for the private relief program Network.
"But what I found were families--mother and father, white not black, middle-class, well-educated, well-dressed--who'd never stepped in a food-stamp office before. They had cars and homes. They also had a lot of shame because their refrigerators were bare."
They are called the new poor. Considering its population of 17 million, the paucity of its welfare services and the intensity of the economic slump, Texas today may be the hungriest state in the union.
Many 'Horror Stories'
"We hear absolute horror stories," said Peter Mann of World Hunger Year, an international agency based in New York that monitors hunger "hot spots" such as Cambodia and the Sudan. Texas is now one of those places. "We hear about people who own very good houses with no furniture inside. They have to sell the furniture to keep going."
Dan Roberts, legislative aide to state Sen. Hugh Parmer, said that recent surveys have produced a profile of the new underprivileged.
"We found many came recently to the state--many from the Northeast or from rural areas to urban areas--looking for jobs when Texas still had jobs. When the jobs disappeared and the high economies collapsed, they were stuck.
"They had car payments. They had houses mortgaged. And for the first time, they had hunger but nowhere to turn."
They are construction workers, builders, oil and gas engineers, accountants, even lawyers.
Statistics are scarce when it comes to comparing hunger state by state, but numbers hint of the magnitude of the problem. Roughly 15% of the Texas population is living below the government-defined poverty level of $11,200 a year for a family of four, compared to the national average, 12.4%. A record 4 million Texans, nearly 25% of everyone in the state, now could qualify for food stamps.
An estimated 1.5 million meals are served each month in Texas to people too poor to buy food, one recent study found. That represents enough food to feed every man, woman and child in a city the size of Detroit.
"As far as hunger, Texas is probably faring worse than other states," said Zy Weinberg, director of the Texas Assn. of Community Action Agencies. "While other states are pulling out of the recession, even booming, we haven't bottomed out yet.
"There's a deep, basic need here," he says. "Our services are just being overwhelmed."
In 1984, for instance, the Houston Interfaith Hunger Coalition processed 69,000 requests for emergency food. In the last 12 months, the agency provided half a million food packages, an increase of 700%. At least half of the agency's 128 pantries are forced to reject legitimate requests for food and other aid each month, because "the cupboard simply goes bare," director Ellen Mitchell said.
The flow of food distributed in parts of Austin, West Texas and Dallas has more than tripled in the last year. The center in Richardson, which was not in existence before February of last year, has fed nearly 10,000 people in the first eight months of this year alone.
"What we're seeing is not the chronically poor, the underclass, but the struggling middle class who have been unable to control their lives," said John Stoesz, a hunger program associate with the Greater Dallas Community of Churches. "They're going under. They're hitting bottom. By the time we get them they're destitute."
An Unlikely Clientele
There are many stories.
Mary Young, who runs a relief pantry in Plano, an affluent Dallas suburb, was stunned when one middle-aged man in a dark suit and tie strode into her office, harrumphed a few times, then demurely asked for his food order.
"I just about fell off my chair," she said. "I thought he was there to volunteer or donate. I had no idea he was a client. You could see in his face how painful this was."
She has seen families leave with packages only to tear them open at the edge of the parking lot and eat the food on the spot. "They are too weak to go home," she said, "so they just sit down and gorge themselves."
York recalled one couple who went through three bankruptcies in a year's time. In another case, a former executive with three children sold both his cars and hocked the furniture to make ends meet.
"One day, he broke down in tears and told us that he'd thought about staging a car accident so that his wife could collect the insurance."