11/22/2011 06:13 pm ET

Food Pantries Provide Thanksgiving Lifeline As Hunger Soars Among Latinos

By Andrea Morocoima

NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. -- In the days before Thanksgiving, a holiday first celebrated by immigrants, Maria Castillo took a moment at the Lighthouse Food Pantry to recount her own perilous journey from Guatemala to the United States.

Separated from her daughters for five years, Castillo said she ekes out a hard existence in her adopted country. For survival, she relies on places such as the Lighthouse in North Plainfield, N.J.

"It's a real blessing to have a turkey this Thanksgiving," she said.

Castillo isn't alone. Latino households experience "food insecurity" at almost twice the rate of all households in the nation, according to Feeding America, a leading hunger relief charity. Food insecurity is associated with poorer nutrition, as individuals sacrifice the quality of their food in order to make ends meet.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found alarming rates of food insecurity, particularly among minorities. It said one in six Americans, or 49 million people, now live in food-insecure households, with the rates much higher for Latinos and African Americans.

According to the USDA report, the rate of food insecurity among Latino households is higher than the national average: more than 26 percent of Latino households versus nearly 15 percent of all households. More than one in four Latinos, or 13 million, are at risk of hunger. Nearly one-third of Latino children, or 5 million, live in food-insecure households.

"Hispanic families continue to be among the Americans most likely to grapple with food insecurity and hunger," Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, said in a statement.

Last weekend, the Lighthouse sought to alleviate some of that need by distributing turkeys and bags of other food.

"The community needs this food pantry, and I am glad it is here," said North Plainfield Mayor Michael Giordano during a visit to the food pantry.

Once a month, the Lighthouse, which is run by a local church, offers food and other support services for needy families, most of whom are Latino immigrants. Many stand in line outside for more than an hour to receive the donations. Wrapped against the chill in a winter coat, Castillo was one of them last weekend.

"I haven't seen my young daughters in five years," said Castillo, who trekked to the U.S. across barren desert. "It was too dangerous to bring them. They might have died."

Her journey, she said, started with the hiring of a guide in Guatemala. She was packed into a tractor-trailer with about 200 other immigrants to travel across the border into Mexico.

"We did not see the sun for three days," she recalled. "We stood there, packed like meat in a can. Everyone relieved themselves in that truck, until they finally opened the door and we breathed fresh air for the first time in days."

Once in Mexico, Castillo said, many of the women in the group were raped. Of the 200 people who set out from Guatemala, she said, only about 60 arrived with her at the U.S. border. She's unsure what happened to the others.

Castillo said that, desperate to escape the poverty in Guatemala, she had wanted to make the journey to the U.S. most of her life.

She was 8 years old when her father died and she left school, she said. Many years later, she set out for America to join her husband and help support her family.

"I am grateful there are Americans who care," Castillo said.