Wondering and worrying how and when it will end is an exercise anyone can take part in, and they can get plenty of assistance just by turning on the news.
For the immediate world outside of financial and political punditry there is the reality that millions of Americans are struggling to afford food. That number, say those on the front lines of helping to feed them, is increasing daily.
Local food pantries are a well-established form of Christian and secular social service. An examination of pantries from around the country tells a troubling tale of exploding demand and a fight to stay adequately supplied.
Chandler Christian Community Center
Chandler is a community of approximately 275,000 people typical of Sun Belt sprawl. Located southeast of Phoenix, it has ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. It also has a rapidly growing number of unemployed and financially strapped residents that are coming to people like Elaine Leaños for help.
Leaños is executive director of the center and the amount of traffic, especially first-time clients, is skyrocketing.
“I see more and more people here every day who have never received food from us,” Leaños explained.
“I see people come in all the time now who are embarrassed to be here. Just by their demeanor and the way they carry themselves, they’re ashamed to have to take assistance. We’ve had people break down in tears at the food they’re receiving. They don’t expect the volume of food they’re receiving.”
Leaños said the bank has expanded its reach to include the more affluent area of Ahwatukee, a bedroom community of about 90,000 people seven miles west of Chandler.
“We simply have to serve a wider area,” she said. “We’re seeing people who have lost half their income or more from job loss. We’re seeing people from these areas moving in with friends and relatives to get by, things we’ve seen our lower income folks do for years.”
The center gets some government funding, but most comes through donation from grocery stores, restaurants, churches, school groups and civic organizations.
“We’re fortunate that we have a good relationship with a lot of partners in the community,” Leaños said. “We call the Lions Club and say there are five items we need to bulk up on and they will go out and spend $2,000 to help us get what we need.”
One of the reasons customers are grateful for the center is that it responds specifically toward people’s needs.
“We modify each food box,” Leaños explained. “For example, if there is a house with six people in it and twin girls under two, we’re going to make sure there’s enough for the adults and jars of baby food for the kids. If someone comes in who is ill and aged, we’ll give them Ensure or Boost. Each family has different needs.”
Leaños was dismayed by some commentaries written on an Arizona Republic discussion board in a story about the area’s economic struggles.
“If people need food, we have it and we give it,” she said. “We refuse to get into this argument about if people are here legally or if they really need the food. What we are seeing is that hunger is hitting hard across the board. We have people who used to donate to us coming in to need help. Right now, you never know when there is going to be a role reversal.”
The Idaho Foodbank
Idaho is indisputably one of the most rural states in the country. Yet the freedom that can come from living in a small community is challenged when resources are stretched thin.
According to David Proctor of The Idaho Foodbank, demand in November and December was up 27 percent over the same time frame the year before. Similarly, the 6.1 million pounds of food the organization distributed in all of 2008 is 800,000 pounds more than in 2007.
“Anecdotally, what we know from the pantries we serve that demand is high and growing,” said Proctor, the organization’s director of communications. “Everyone is saying they’re seeing people they’ve never serviced before.”
The Idaho Foodbank has three warehouses in Boise, Lewiston, and Pocatello that help spread food throughout the state. Interim President and CEO Roy Lacey said that 25 to 30 percent of the organization’s business is done through mobile food banks, where trucks will go out to individual rural communities and distribute food to areas which are either too small or too impoverished to support their own bank.
“We had a report from one of our mobile teams that went to Kootenai County (in northern Idaho) around Christmas time and a lady that took the food for her family said that (the food) was their Christmas present.”
Lacey said the closing or slowdowns of factories, mills, and mines are taking a serious toll on rural economies where those businesses and their satellites are the major sources of income.
“People can’t afford to move to where there could be a job if they don’t have the money to begin with,” he said.
Affiliated with national distributor Feeding America has helped keep warehouses full, Lacey said, and that using the mobile food banks will be essential to servicing predominantly rural states like Idaho.
“I think that for rural states like us, it’s the food bank of the future,” he said. “Our world (as an organization) is changing very quickly and to distribute food to a lot larger area we will need to be tweaked. We will remain on the front lines of feeding people, and if we can find a better way to do it, we’ll do it.”
Cincinnati is known for its proximity to the Ohio River and a traditional Midwestern work ethic. Earlier this year it was dubbed with another distinction it probably could do without, making the Top 10 in a Business Week survey of what it deemed the country’s unhappiest cities. Ohio, which like neighboring Michigan has been pounded by the free fall of domestic automakers, has plenty to be depressed about.
But the difficult circumstances have galvanized support for Cincinnati’s Freestore Foodbank, which has seen demand spike 55 percent over the past two years according to Communications Manager Brian MacConnell.
“Our people seem to be holding together real well,” MacConnell said in reference to employees and volunteers alike. “From a human standpoint, people here really understand that their neighbors are in need. It has electrified many of them. It’s really very gratifying to see.”
MacConnell agreed with his counterparts in Arizona and Idaho that the numbers of new faces on the other side of the counter are growing.
“We can quantify that we have new clients, but what we can’t say is exactly how many of them have received some sort of social services before.”
MacConnell said the food bank is fortunate that corporate donations are flowing freely to help it stay open.
“Our private donors have really stepped up to help us out,” MacConnell said. “We have the Kroger headquarters here in Cincinnati and they have been very generous with us. Our other manufacturers have done a great job, too. Like virtually every other food bank, we’re dependent on whatever government programs we can access, too.”
Ross Fraser doesn’t appreciate accusations that some people may be taking advantage of the recession to come away with free food.
“It is no picnic to wait in line for food, it’s not something you would do unless you absolutely had to,” Fraser said. He is the media relations manager for Feeding America, which helps supply food banks around the country, including the Idaho and Cincinnati banks.
“I’ve been at food lines in Chicago at 4 a.m. where you have people lined up outside a pantry that doesn’t open up until 8 a.m. because they know if they don’t, they won’t be able to get that $20 or $30 worth of groceries that’s being handed out. These people are not gaming the system. They’re only coming when they need to.”
Fraser also hears criticisms about people who may still be employed but are in need of food assistance nonetheless.
“Where we get some pushback is people saying some of this is happening because we’re feeding people at a socioeconomic level who don’t need it,” Fraser said.
“We’ve seen people stuck in these horrible mortgages that are making enough to stay in their house and pay their bills and have nothing left.
“Sometimes there is not a lot of sympathy for that, but we’re not going to turn them away.”
One of the biggest eye-openers for Fraser has been increased demand in the Northeast due to rising unemployment and in warm-weather states bludgeoned by housing woes.
“In Florida we have seen some acute spikes, especially in the areas where the real estate market has collapsed,” he said. “In San Diego it’s not unusual for us now to have an 18-wheeler pull up with 2,000 people waiting.”
Senior citizens can be forgotten statistics within the recession, Fraser said. He cited experiences from previous employment in rural Pulaski, Va., tucked in the mountainous southwest corner of the state.
“This is an area where you have most of the people working non-union jobs for furniture companies,” he explained. “Most of the seniors there live off Social Security and can’t survive when you have the economy the way it is. People who worked hard all their lives, good honest people in their 70s, shouldn’t have to go without food.”
Polly Kauahi said Hawaii was at “the leading edge” of the increased traffic and struggles her mainland counterparts were seeing when two of the area’s major employers, American Trans Air and Aloha Airlines, went out of business last spring.
“With the effect of the economy we saw on the national news with all the layoffs, we were experiencing that early on when two of our airlines closed,” Development Manager Kauahi said. “Hawaii is one of the most expensive places to live. Many people here are just one or two paychecks away from being in real trouble.”
She told what she said was a typical tale of a husband and wife who both worked for the airlines who went from eating out four or five times a week to asking for food assistance a couple of months later.
Keeping the shelves stocked is additionally challenging because of transportation costs. The bank has recently purchased 600,000 pounds of food to meet demand, more than after the local tourism industry took a huge hit after 9/11.
“Many of our corporate donors keep their inventories low to keep costs down, but we have seen an Aloha spirit of generosity from our donors in monetary donations to help us meet our demands,” Kauahi said.
Those demands are also being stretched by the fact that fewer people are taking vacations.
“Many of the occupancy rates (at hotels) are down 30 percent or even more,” Kauahi explained. “The workers aren’t laid off, but hotels have decided to share the pain, so to speak, where you will have people only working 12 hours a week where they’re used to working much more. All our tourism-related business is down, and that impacts us.”
Gleaners Food Bank
Robert Wilson is seeing different types of messages pop up in his e-mail inbox these days.
“I just got an e-mail from a woman the other day that had lost her job and was having to decide between putting gas in her car and buying enough food,” Wilson said. “We are coming in contact with so many people who have never used a food bank before or had any kind of assistance contacting us to figure out how to do this.”
Wilson is the major gifts manager at Gleaners in Indianapolis. Gleaners operates a sprawling 83,000 square-foot facility on the city’s northeast side. It is by far Indiana’s largest food bank and a distributor to local banks around the state, primarily in central and southern Indiana.
Gleaners annually serves about 138,000 Hoosiers, Wilson said, half of whom are children and senior citizens. That number, unquestionably, is growing.
Between October 2007 and February, Gleaners’ customer base expanded 27 percent over the year before in the same time frame.
“Thus far we’ve been able to meet demand, but our gap between supply and demand is almost none,” Wilson said. “As soon as we get the food here, it is going out the door.”
Like Brian MacConnell at the Cincinnati food bank, Wilson said Gleaners is receiving a fair amount of support from Kroger in particular and from the community in general.
Wilson credited Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s call in November for greater community support of non-profits as a positive step in boosting Gleaners’ profile. Despite a number of internationally well-known businesses coming to the state during the first term of Gov. Mitch Daniels – most notably a huge Honda plant in between Indianapolis and Cincinnati – unemployment has steadily climbed as other manufacturing and retail sectors have slipped.
“If the economy gets worse, or God forbid we slip into some kind of Depression, we might not be getting enough food as demand expands, especially for the aged and children,” Wilson said.
For the time being, Gleaners has been immune to shortfalls that have befallen other area non-profits.
“A lot of times non-profits with the arts and cultural areas are the first to suffer as people cut back when their budgets are tight,” Wilson said. “Our principal and most faithful donors have made what I would consider sacrificial gifts to help us. These are people we are going to count on as we move forward depending on what happens.”