GREEN BAY – Three murder-suicides punctuated the last year of work at Golden House, a space devoted to providing safety to domestic abuse survivors. 
That’s high for the Green Bay-based nonprofit organization, said Cheeia Lo, executive director of Golden House. That level of violence is a symptom of the high volume of needs that went unmet in the peak of COVID-19, with hunger chief among them. 
More than they need beds, people have been coming in droves for groceries that might stave off hunger and pacify escalating moods. Requests for food have never been higher than in the last two years, Lo said. 
“We’ve seen an increase in violence, sexual assault, strangulation, murder-suicides,” Lo said. “When basic needs are not being met, anger comes out … they will take that anger out on people who are closest to them, and unfortunately, that tends to be a spouse or children.”
Domestic violence may not be the first thing to come to mind when considering the consequences of food insecurity, but studies show the two are strongly intertwined. It’s one of the many symptoms of living with chronic hunger. And, while it might sound obvious to say that living without basic needs impacts behavioral and physical health, the myriad ways hunger presents itself can make the daily struggle difficult to spot.
Patti Habeck, CEO and president of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, tells people often that if a family doesn’t have their basic needs addressed, it’s difficult to solve any other issue in their lives. She recalled a conversation with a Wisconsin domestic abuse shelter that told her that if it can’t solve food insecurities, it’s going to be next to impossible to bring stress levels down.
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“Until we give people the trust that they will have consistent access to healthy food,” Habeck said, “it is really difficult to address any of the coexisting conditions in a person’s life that keeps them in a position of either poverty or food insecurity or any other less-than-desirable situation.”
Danilo Artez, a counselor and advocate with We All Rise, was working alongside people from Wello to hand out fresh vegetables and fruit when someone came up to him holding a bag of something he didn’t recognize.
He remembers the person asking him “What is this?” It was a bag of lentils, but Artez wasn’t sure, beyond identifying it, how one should go about eating it. 
We All Rise, a Green Bay-based organization that fosters and supports Black communities in northeast Wisconsin, works with communities and partners to connect families to nutritional meals, which is great — in theory. But if nobody knows how to eat the foods on offer, it’s hard to celebrate the groceries in your bag.
“People have great intentions, but when a family is told ‘Eat this because I think it’s healthy’ and the family doesn’t know what to do with that food, it’s easy to say, ‘Well you clearly aren’t hungry then,'” Artez said. “That eases their conscience and people remain hungry.”
Artez said some families feel such a degree of embarrassment about their lack of knowledge about more healthful food selections that they may go for the cheaper, less nutritious meal out of habit — and the immediate gratification.
Dr. Randy Gage, a clinical psychologist at We All Rise, said it’s hard for the clients with whom he works to feel connected with the greater community. Black people in the community may feel uncomfortable accessing resources at facilities with a majority white staff.  
“The people that I see tend to be unemployed, sometimes living on the street literally, or maybe a different kind of homelessness. There’s a lot of things that go along with the food insecurity that I see,” Gage said.  
Across the Fox River on the west side, immigrant families trickled into COMSA, a Green Bay-based resource for Somali refugees and other immigrant communities. Mohamed Rehe greeted them from behind the desk in Somali, where they chattered and occasionally chuckled.
Two Somali refugees said they don’t have access to food pantries, a result of language barriers, lack of transportation and not receiving adequate time off from work to locate available centers.
One, a 64-year-old woman who did not wish to share her name, felt good when she first emigrated to Green Bay from Somalia six years ago, but the assistance she receives from the federal government isn’t keeping up with inflation costs. She said her selection of food depends on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but attaining food high in nutrition is sometimes not possible.
“If I don’t receive enough money, I end up with a poor diet,” she said by way of translator Rehe. “That’s how it’s been lately for me and my child. We don’t have the ability to get the highest nutritional food.”
The other, a 74-year-old man who settled in Green Bay in 2019, said — also via Rehe — that his language barrier makes it easy for his landlord to take advantage of him, on top of the problems of inflation, both of which make it harder for him to send money home to his children in Somalia. He can’t remember the last time he was able to afford milk and eggs.
“The income I make is divided into rent, electricity, whatever else, so whatever is left for food is very small,” he said. “All the problems originated from the cost of gasoline, which has gone up, so we are selecting a diet that is not healthy for us because of our low-income.”
A teenager falls asleep during class, or they rack up suspensions after acting out.
A child has trouble concentrating on schoolwork or assignments and subsequently performs poorly on tests.
A child is underweight — or even overweight. 
Camila Martin, a nutritionist at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, said any of the above circumstances could mean a child or teenager is struggling with chronic hunger.
When we think of hunger, many of us draw up associations of a waifish child fishing for scraps from neighboring food trays. While this is one portrait of hunger, chronic hunger also looks like relying on foods low in nutrition such as fast food, overly starchy foods and candy.
Martin works with children of all shapes and sizes suffering from food insecurity. The problem many families are facing right now, and one that has been exacerbated by inflation, is the need to prioritize paying bills over feeding their families good-quality foods.
Children who fill up on inexpensive starches to tide themselves over until a more nutrient-rich meal comes along, Martin said, are still starved of nutrients.
Micronutrient deficiency, that is, a lack of vitamins and minerals, has a critical impact on the growing body’s ability to reproduce cells and can create a confluence of issues that affect a person’s ability to think, socialize and participate inside and outside the classroom. 
Not having enough iron, a mineral found in many whole foods, for example, can lead to poor sleep, Martin said. And fitful nights can mean an inability to focus on school or in the workplace. 
What’s more, people with chronic disease are additionally inhibited by the type of food available and affordable. 
In particular, diabetes is constant struggle for the food insecure.
“For people with diabetes or even something like cardiovascular disease or hypertension the type of food is really important because I might have enough food to feel full but it will actually make my disease worse,” said Rebekah Walker, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Walker has been working alongside Medical College, Feeding America and other food pantries in Wisconsin to understand how to improve the lifestyles of people with Type 2 diabetes who also struggle with food insecurity
Black people are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes nationwide than white people, data from the Office of Minority Health shows. More Black people also face food insecurity in Wisconsin than other racial groups at about 27%, according to Feeding America.
Many people involved in Walker’s study discussed other stressors that come from managing their diabetes, including transportation for regular doctor appointments, taking medications regularly, and taking care of their other family members.
The stress compounds for people with diabetes as they try to accommodate multiple diets for themselves and other family members. Oftentimes, they will have to cook specific meals to maintain their blood sugar, while cooking other things for their children and parents, which adds on to the grocery bills.
With or without a chronic disease, chronic stress is its own reinforcing cycle for the food insecure, and can appear in the form of headaches, body aches, fatigue, irritability, gastrointestinal issues, constipation, an upset stomach, anxiety, insomnia and other unpleasant symptoms, said Martin.
“Worrying about running out of food is a really big side of it (for food-insecure families), because with that comes the chronic stress that caregivers are under, which then trickles down to kids,” Martin said. “Most people work really, really hard to get the kids what they need and try to hide all the bad things that are happening — but kids pick up on things.”
Chronic hunger impacts 7.2%, or 415,400 Wisconsinites, according to a 2020 state study from Feeding America, and while that might appear lower than the national numbers, 11.8%, food insecurity is far grimmer when looking at disaggregated data by race and age.
For children under 18 in Wisconsin, hunger affects nearly double of the state numbers, at 12.6%. That’s 160,890 children. It’s worst in Menominee County, where 34.4% of its children went hungry in 2020, up from 2019. 
Pandemic-era policies in 2020 helped alleviate some of the burden of the strained emergency food system, according to Casey Hoff, food equity and nutrition policy analyst for Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, and that is visiblein the overall data, which shows a difference of two percentage points for food-insecure children between 2019 and 2020.
Those policies, such as the school nutrition programs and the School Pandemic EBT that were in place for all children, demonstrated the power of what policies can do to effectively keep Wisconsin children fed, Hoff said. 
But those are temporary fixes, and not all households received the support necessary to nip hunger in the bud.
In both 2019 and 2020, 27% of Black households in Wisconsin suffer from chronic hunger.
Winnebago and Brown counties have the highest rates of food insecurity for Black families in the state, at 36% and 34% respectively, with a majority of the affected households in east and central Wisconsin. 
Meanwhile, in Hispanic households, food insecurity worsened between 2019 and 2020. Where 21% of Hispanic families dealt with food insecurity, it rose to 22% in 2020.
The problem of hunger in the Hispanic community is widespread. While Eau Claire has the highest rates of food insecurity in the state at 27%, 19 counties hovered between 22% and 27% food insecurity for this population.
To put this in perspective, in the two years this disaggregated data has been tracked by Feeding America, food insecurity doesn’t breach 10% for white families across the state. 
Nationally, Hoff said the breakdown of food-insecure children is even more stark: Food insecurity impacts 12% of Black children, 9.7% Hispanic children and 3.4% white children. 
Hoff worries the climate of inequity will only worsen those disparities.
“School nutrition programs have the power to reduce and improve food equity, specifically among children by allowing all kids, regardless of income, not to go to school hungry. Healthy school meals for all kids levels the playing field,” Hoff said. 
“We provide books to students, bus transportation, lockers, but we don’t necessarily provide free school meals to all kids. There’s significant evidence that hungry children can’t learn. Free school meals is an equity issue.”
Last year, thanks to the generosity of readers, more than $163,000 was raised through the Stock the Shelves campaign, providing more than 652,000 meals to those in need in communities served by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
Stock the Shelves aims to help those in need in the communities served by the following Wisconsin newspapers: Appleton Post-Crescent, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Oshkosh Northwestern, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Sheboygan Press, Fond du Lac Reporter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wausau Daily Herald, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Marshfield News Herald, Stevens Point Journal, Door County Advocate, Oconto County Reporter and Kewaunee County Star-News.
Donations will help support the community in which the donor resides.
Checks should be made payable to Feeding American Eastern Wisconsin, ATTN: Stock the Shelves, and mailed to 2911 W. Evergreen Drive, Appleton WI 54913.
Enclose alongside your contribution the donor’s address with city, state and ZIP code for internal processing, a notation of whether the donation should remain anonymous, whether the donation is in the memory of someone special, and the donor’s name as it should appear in the thank-you advertisement to be published in the Thanksgiving edition of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s daily newspapers.
To donate online, visit
Contact Benita Mathew at Follow her on Twitter at @benita_mathew.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.


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