On a freezing Friday afternoon in early January, Paula Green slipped out the side door of New Hope Baptist Church and stuck a paper notice to the front: Closed.
It was only temporary. The weekly food pantry would re-open the following Friday after a planned volunteer orientation, Green told the people gathered outside.
An elderly woman took a second for the news to sink in then shuffled off down the icy road to catch the 45 bus home. Mel Lopez would have to find her food elsewhere.
So would the other people outside the church: the old man who spoke only Spanish and clutched several empty grocery bags, the young man who swore under his breath as he made his way back to his car, and the man riding his bike in circles around the parking lot, icicles forming on his beard.
Jaye Keener, who bikes into Mountain View from his home in Muldoon, has visited the New Hope food pantry religiously for years now. The first time he went, he took home a box of food. The next week, he helped volunteer. He’s been doing both ever since, and said he still sees some of the same people he did nearly a decade ago.
“I think there’s great need,” he said. “There are hungry people, they don’t have a lot of money. I can imagine some people really depend on it.”
Across the state, thousands share the reality of hunger.
The state’s Department of Health and Social Services describes food insecurity as a “significant and growing problem,” with roughly one in 10 Alaskans struggling with access to sufficient food.
The Food Bank of Alaska distributed 6.5 million pounds of food to more than 300 partner agencies last year, according to a recently released report. A spokeswoman for the nonprofit said surveys outline all the difficult decisions associated with food insecurity. The majority of people the food bank feeds must often decide between paying for something to eat or a roof over their head. Or transportation. Or utility bills. Or medical care.
“We have people making really terrible and difficult choices – those are real-life choices that people are making every single day,” said Michael Miller, the food bank’s executive director. “It’s the bad side of normal.”
But while hunger and hard choices are a regular part of life for many, no two stories are exactly the same. There is no typical, Miller said.
“The face of hunger is not what most people believe it to be,” he said.
Keener, unemployed and disabled, said the food stamps he receives just aren’t enough. At a little less than $20 a month, they buy “about a day’s worth of food,” he said. The weekly pantry at the Mountain View church is a way to help put something on the table. Volunteering there is a way to pay it back.
“It’s my job – I’m supposed to come here and do this,” he said,
The New Hope site serves about 100 people every week and distributed around 170,000 pounds of food last year, according to the Food Bank of Alaska. It’s just one of several food pantries in the neighborhood.
At the Hispanic Cultural Center, the Latino Lions Club hosts a twice-a-month food pantry that draws everyone from elderly locals, to families, to chronically homeless Alaskans that sometimes frequent neighborhood parks. Last year, the Hispanic Cultural Center distributed around 80,000 pounds of food.
A white, stucco home just a few blocks away draws a line of hungry people every day around 4:30 p.m. They come to collect food gathered and distributed by 79-year-old Alice Lawrence. There are people with homes and people without; people young and old, all looking for the same meal.
The church and the cultural center and the home on Richmond Avenue are some of the nearly 75 local organizations that make up the Anchorage Anti-Hunger Network, served by the Food Bank of Alaska. For many people, Miller said, the network helps fill the gaps between a limited income and the cost of living. Sometimes it’s a one-time emergency, but sometimes it’s a job that just doesn’t pay enough, or a retirement that only goes so far or food stamps that amount to quarters a day.
“Trying to live on that is incredibly, completely difficult,” the food bank’s director said.
When faced with the hard choice, many Alaskans turn to the food bank. Monica, homeless for about eight years now, chooses differently. (She asked to be identified by first name only)
Standing in the parking lot of the Midtown Walmart on the first Saturday morning of the new year, she said she buys all her own food and all her own clothes with her own income. It only goes so far, though, so she spends most of her nights in a shelter.
She blew her nose and pulled her hands deep inside her fleece jacket, her short gray hair frozen in disheveled spikes around her face, and said she was trying to decide where to go to get out of the cold. The temperature hovered right around five degrees. She spent part of the morning at Walmart, purchasing some personal items and escaping the chill inside the brightly lit box store. Maybe she would go to Barnes & Noble next? She had food, but not the luxury of somewhere warm to spend the long, cold Saturday morning. After eight years on the streets, she knows all about the choices people make when it comes to food, and shelter and survival.
“I’m not going to judge anybody, because I don’t know, you know?” she said. “You might be going through some bad times.”
Keener, one of the Friday afternoon regulars at New Hope Baptist Church, has seen bad times and better times and people from a rainbow of backgrounds. There are many immigrants, and many who call Mountain View home. Many, like Keener, just need a little extra help getting by.
“People come from all different walks of life,” he said. “Wherever they’re from – we don’t know what’s going on – but they come here to get food.”
Hunger has no common backstory, he said. Just a common effect.