A national report has confirmed what locals have long known: The real estate bust hit families where, perhaps, it hurt the most: refrigerators and pantry shelves.
In surveys running for five years through 2012, nearly one in four households with children across the county said they couldn't consistently afford food.
Here in the Cape Coral/Fort Myers area, the numbers were worse.
The Food Research and Action Center found that from 2008-12, Cape Coral/Fort Myers ranked third in the nation, with 30.6 percent of households with children reporting that they did not have enough money to buy needed food.
Three Florida cities finished in the top 4 in this dubious honor, with Lakeland taking the top spot ahead of Bakersfield, Calif. Orlando was fourth.
Al Brislain, President and CEO of the Harry Chapin Food Bank, said the numbers were more demoralizing than anticipated and, when the bottom fell out five years ago, people weren't ready.
"We've been living it. We knew it was bad, but we didn't realize we were among the worst in the country," Brislain said. "We went from 2.5 percent unemployment to 15 in 18 months, and many of them had no coping skills, like shopping once a week and watching the thermostat."
Florida ranked fourth nationally with 28.6 percent of households with children reporting that there were times in the prior year when they did not have enough money to buy food that they needed for themselves or their family.
About 17.5 percent of households without children in Florida said they faced the same struggle, according to the data.
The report is consistent with data released by the federal government this month that show how many Americans continue to struggle.
Brislain said the numbers, while on an average from 2008-12, don't reflect that times have gotten better for those struggling with hunger.
"We're still in the same position. The poverty rate is 2.5 points higher in 2012 than in 2007. Chronic poverty didn't change, and the median income in 2012 is 8.3 percent lower than in 2007," Brislain said of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. "That changes low income people to poverty."
Food insecurity data, released by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show that 28.6 percent of all people in Florida (about two in seven) struggled with hunger during the 2010 to 2012 period.
Brislain said this has posed a challenge for the food bank, which has had a hard time keeping up with demand..
"In the last five years we have gone from distributing 4 million pounds of food to more than16 million. The bad news is we went from serving 12,000 a month in 2007 to 30,000 and it's stayed there," Brislain said. "We would really need to double to meet the need out there."
Thankfully, the generosity of private citizens and local businesses has taken some of the pressure away, as seen by some of their recent food drives.
But Brislain said the true answer is to get the food to where it needs to be in a timely fashion and to get people back to work.
"The food is out there. A quarter of the food in this country is wasted. It's a challenge to get it out because it's perishable," Brislain said. "The answer is jobs, and they're out there, but it's slower than we would like. It's a slow grind."
The Harry Chapin Food Bank solicits, collects and stores quality food for distribution to families and others in need through a network of 150 nonprofit agencies in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades counties. For each donated dollar, the food bank can distribute $6 worth of food and grocery items.
The full analysis is available on FRAC's website at: www.frac.org.
For additional information about or to contribute financially to the Harry Chapin Food Bank, call 334-7007 or go to harrychapinfoodbank.org