Food banks see increase in needy clients, feel pinch in food costs

At Carroll County Food Sunday, peanut butter has fallen off the list of staples. And short of an infusion of money, the food bank won't be able to continue helping church pantries in the county next year, leaving the agency with just three locations in the sprawling county.

At Fish & Loaves Pantry in West Baltimore, the cupboard was bare of canned green beans and other vegetables last week, as the Rev. Andre Samuel struggled to feed a clientele that has doubled in size over the past year.

Such concerns come as a slow economic recovery exacts a toll on families and exerts pressure on agencies that try to keep the needy fed.

A summer drought and increased fuel prices have helped contribute to a rise in food costs. And more requests for assistance have poured in — increasingly from people unable to replace jobs that provided their family with a middle- or working-class income, food bank directors said.

"The caseload has just exploded," Deborah A. Flateman, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Food Bank, said of the organizations across the state that feed the hungry, often with goods from the Halethorpe-based food bank. "Their budgets haven't changed that much."

In addition, Flateman said, the demographics of hunger are changing. Job loss and extended unemployment — and people accepting lower-paid, part-time work so that they earn an income — keep pushing into the middle-class and suburbs.

The Maryland Food Bank, and the groups that buy from it, are paying about 15 percent more this year, even with the reduced prices it negotiates for food sold by the truckload.

Supplying 120 soup kitchens and pantries in Baltimore and 600 statewide, it may still top its goal of providing 30 million pounds of food this year — up from about 26 million last year and 23 million the year before, Flateman said.

Some 15,800 holiday meal boxes have gone out, up from 9,750 last year, and the total is likely to reach 20,000 by Christmas, said Kate Sam, a Maryland Food Bank spokeswoman

At Food Sunday's Westminster headquarters, donations aren't keeping pace with prices, "making things very difficult for us," said Forest Howell, a board member. Also scratched off Food Sunday's shopping list, he said, are eggs, tuna fish and canned fruit. The board expects to check its budget again as the end of the year approaches, with an eye toward restoring some items that were cut, if possible, he said.

This year, for the first time, the organization held a gala-style fundraiser, which brought in about $6,000. Food Sunday mailed out four funding solicitations this year instead of the usual three, he said.

A year ago, it was feeding fewer than 400 families a week; now, it is more than 420 a week. This week, 575 Thanksgiving dinners went out.

The Rev. Andre Samuel, who runs Fish & Loaves at Baltimore's Faith Tabernacle Church, said he wanted to give out 100 Thanksgiving turkeys, like he did last year. But he had 24. Donations of many goods are down this year.

"Cash donations? I probably got $17,000 this year. Last year about this time, we were up to about $32,000, $33,000," he said. "And I doubled my clientele," he said, pointing to 1,350 clients a month — more than 10 times the number he had when the pantry opened three years ago.

A matching grant from Baltimore City for food bought at the Maryland Food Bank — for every case of certain nonperishables he bought, he got another for free through the grant — helped him restock the pantry this week. "So now I am down to $1,200 in the bank, and I got Christmas coming," he said. More letters pleading for donations went out.

With people coming from 46 ZIP codes this year — up from 26 last year — he's facing the possibility of limiting the clientele to people who live in areas near the church. However, a big draw for the pantry is that it's open longer hours than most to accommodate the increasing number of working poor, and they account for a lot of newcomers who travel from as far as Frederick, he said.

"I'm in a little bit of a pinch here," said Bruce Michalec, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, which relies on public donations and grants for one-third of its $300,000 annual budget (the rest comes from Anne Arundel County government and schools). "The money is slow in coming."

He usually has $50,000 in public contributions and grants by Thanksgiving. But instead, it's about $20,000, and a small rainy-day fund. "You know, people wait until the last minute," he said.

Still, he said, businesses, schools and community groups have provided everything from turkeys by the hundred to pies by the dozen for the holiday season.

Michalec said if cash is tight, he will consider temporarily reducing pickups of furniture that the food bank gives away.

"I would have to cut down on my fuel," he said.

Jennifer Hudson of Ellicott City was among those Tuesday bringing home Thanksgiving dinner food that the Howard County Food Bank supplied.

A medical records technician and mother of two, she stopped working in 2009 because of chronic health problems, she said.

"My husband has been the breadwinner of the family, but currently he is unemployed, and he has been for most of the past year," she said.

The recession dried up much of his home improvement work, she said.

The Food Link, which isn't a food bank but instead works to obtain surplus food along with other foods and products to distribute to agencies in Anne Arundel County and a few Eastern Shore counties, is looking at the prospect of a fifth year in which its every-Friday produce distribution may have to start off year on a monthly basis.

"If I don't get funding for the entire year, we will decide for January, February and March to do only the last Friday of the month," said Executive Director Cathy Holstrom-Bird. "Right now, it's tenuous."

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