Unemployment driving increased food bank demand

National unemployment is hovering just below 10 percent. Several states have already crossed the double-digit statistical barrier. With employment consistently referred to as the slowest lagging indicator of the economic recovery being gradually seen in financial markets, the ratio of job seekers to available jobs is likely to remain high for at least several months to come. This means that one of the most basic necessities of putting food on the table for a family has become a daily struggle for millions of Americans. Everyday Christian surveyed food banks around the country in March and discovered that demand was increasing rapidly. Since spring, that demand has increased. Chandler Christian Community Center, Chandler, Arizona The increase in the amount of traffic Elaine Leaños has seen come through the doors of this center in suburban Phoenix has been noticeable over 2009. Fortunately, the donations have kept pace. “The community has stepped up like you wouldn’t believe,” Leaños said. “We have served a record number of people, but we have not have had to close down and we haven’t had to substitute, for example, for other protein items from what we normally have. “We have been going full speed all along while the numbers of people coming in have been going strong.” The spirit of giving has consistently matched the bleak circumstances. “We have expanded out our donor base through publicity,” Leaños said. “As people find out about our situation, they have helped. We’ve been able to go to the same core group we’ve gone to before and say, ‘We need this and that,’ and we’ve been able to head off crises before it ever got to that stage.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Arizona’s unemployment rate stands at 9.3 percent. Leaños said she has seen the effects in Maricopa County where former donors are increasingly becoming new customers. “We had a gentleman here who was robbed and needed our help and the next week he came back and made a donation. We certainly don’t require that he do that, but this is the kind of situation we’re coming across over and over. People are willing to help their neighbors in an emergency.” This was also the case over the summer as some children struggled to find consistent meals without the benefit of free and reduced breakfast and lunches through public schools. “Our schools go back pretty early at the end of July, but for those eight weeks when school isn’t in session creates a real challenge for many people,” Leaños said. “Things have been more stable once we got into August and September.” Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, Indianapolis The summertime dynamic of children’s food shortage is familiar to Robert Wilson, grant manager and major gifts officer for Gleaners. Rising unemployment in Indianapolis has prompted the food bank to step up efforts toward building its backpack program to make sure kids have food on the weekends to sustain them. “In Indianapolis Public Schools where upwards of 80 percent of the kids on free and reduced lunch and coming from families who are near poverty or in poverty, when they are out of school they don’t have access to food all the time,” Wilson said. “We are working to fill backpacks with nutritious foods that do not require a lot of preparation that kids can take home on a Friday afternoon as an additional source for the weekend.” Indiana’s unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent much of the year. Wilson reported that inquiries for assistance have increased 41 percent over this time last year. This is also true in many of the smaller communities within a short drive of Indianapolis which Gleaners serves. Morgan County, located just south of the city, has seen an 100 percent increase in demand over the past year. “It has been getting worse as people continue to lose jobs and get laid off,” Wilson said. “We are fortunate to live in such a generous community which has been responding with food and money donations, but there is still a gap.” That gap has been filled, at least temporarily by USDA foodstuffs purchased with cash from the federal stimulus bill passed in February. “Thanks to the stimulus bill we have been able to purchase additional food to meet the additional need,” Wilson said. “Without that source, I’m not sure what we’d be doing right now.” Mindful that the stimulus money will run out eventually, Wilson said that the annual push for holiday donations underscored by the economy will hopefully provide needed support. “We have seen many people around the community and around the country in situations where for the first time in their lives they need emergency food assistance,” he said. “People who may have had secure middle class incomes a year ago have lost a job and now have to find food to feed their kids. It’s a story you hear again and again. … There isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. We will continue to have high levels of local unemployment well after the recession ends because businesses are not going to go out on a limb and hire without incoming business to sustain it. We have to be prepared for that.” Freestore Food Bank, Cincinnati Over the last two fiscal years the number of people coming into Freestore’s client service center in downtown Cincinnati is up 52 percent said Brian MacConnell, the food bank’s vice president of communications and strategic planning. Freestore has 10 million pounds of food in its warehouse and distributes items to 400 member agencies in surrounding rural areas of southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southern Indiana. MacConnell said anecdotal reports are that demand is up significantly in those areas. Ohio and Kentucky’s unemployment rates have been over 10 percent since February. “There is a direct relationship with the unemployment rate,” MacConnell said. “We see many situations where maybe dad is working two or three jobs and maybe mom is working a couple of jobs. People are doing whatever they can to address the issues they have.” MacConnell agreed with Wilson that more USDA supplies are available, but much of local and federal funding has been “absolutely shredded” by drastically trimmed budgets. He praised the efforts of corporate donors such as Kraft Foods and the Kroger grocery store chain for helping fill in the gap. Kraft donated a truck which Freestore has converted onto a mobile food pantry to reach outlying areas. It has been a great tool to reach communities where member agencies and pantries aren’t quite as densely located.” Links: Chandler Christian Community Center: http://www.chandlerfoodbank.org/index.shtml Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana: http://www.gleaners.org/ Freestore Food Bank: http://www.freestorefoodbank.org/index.html

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