October 11, 2008

Food-Giving Programs Are Running Short

By Greg Mellen

LONG BEACH - The cupboard is nearly bare at the Salvation Army food pantry - literally.

On a shelf labeled "chicken soup" there is nothing but a pair of scissors.

The only soup of any kind to be found is chicken broth, except for a small, badly dented can of Franco-American chicken-and-stars soup.

Barbara Taft, the family services coordinator, examined the can and noticed its expiration date has passed.

"I'll have to get rid of this," she said.

Elsewhere in the small room from which the Salvation Army packs sacks of groceries for needy residents and families, the pickings were meager.

The pantry has a sufficient supply of dry spaghetti, but is out of sauce. There are a few boxes of "Chicken Helper," but, of course, no chicken. Two jars of chili remain. There are three jars of strawberry preserves, but the peanut butter just ran out. The 16 cans each of green beans, tuna and refried beans represent much of what's left.

This is the new reality. And the Salvation Army is not alone in its struggles.

Catholic Charities has had to severely curtail the hours that it distributes free food.

"Sometimes, we have to close because we run out," said Anna Totta, regional director for Catholic Charities.

And Christian Outreach in Action has also curtailed hours and is frequently scrambling for food as demand increases.

Food Finders, which provides foodstuffs for more than 200 agencies and groups in Los Angeles and Orange counties said that while it hustles to expand its donor base, the pleas from local food pantries are becoming more desperate.

Supplies shrinking

Across Long Beach and in a number of places nationally, programs that provide food for the poor are seeing steep increases in demand and stagnant or decreased supplies.

And while the recent quakes on Wall Street have grabbed national headlines about economic hard times, those who work at places such as the Salvation Army say the tough times predate the stock market difficulties.

Gail Crandall, an assistant to Major Glen Madsen, commanding officer for the Long Beach and Southeast communities, said the situation is as dire as she has seen.

In August this year, the Salvation Army provided food to 93 new families, almost three times more than a year ago. The number of bags of groceries it passed out rose from 249 in August 2007 to 570 this year and in September from 276 to 504.

"All the agencies are saying the same things," said Arlene Mercer, executive director and founder of Food Finders, adding that doubled demand is rather common.

Her group, which held its annual Harvest Ball Friday, is also on shaky ground. Although she said that's not uncommon, it's still a concern that is heightened by the economic downturn.

"I'm worried. I never have a large amount in reserve," Mercer. "If we go down, then there will be a domino effect. If we go down, a lot (of food providers) will go down."

And a number already have.

"Food pantries are null and void," said Dixie Dohrmann, executive director of Christian Outreach in Action on Third Street, which operates a pantry and offers free meals.

Catholic Charities on 14th Street, which has a walk-up window for its food pantry that used to be open four days a week, has reduced its hours of food giveaways to two days a week and from 24 hours a week to 10, yet is serving the same number of needy.

The Salvation Army has stopped being open in the afternoon, and still the number of people served rose, and Christian Outreach in Action has cut its grocery giveaway hours on Tuesday and Thursday from five hours a day to three.

Rising costs blamed

The uptick in demand began in earnest during the summer months.

"Probably when the price of gas went up," said Dohrmann.

Mercer said there has been what she called a "perfect storm" of layoffs combined with steep increases in the costs of housing, gas and food.

"That's when we started getting all the calls," Mercer said. "And that was before the big debacle with the stock market."

Crandall said not only the numbers but the kinds of customers are changing.

"You've always had a certain segment of the population that was needy," Crandall said. "This is not that. These are people who have worked their whole lives. They've never had to ask for assistance. It's a new psychology. You hear panic in their voices. They don't know what to do."

As Sofia Loscano, 33, waited for food, she said that most of her friends came to the Salvation Army after their food stamps were gone. She added that after she pays all her bills, she has no money left for food for herself and her family.

Mercer recalled a mother calling her and being embarrassed that she had fed her family potatoes to stretch the food budget and still didn't have enough.

"People are trying to make it paycheck to paycheck and coming up short," Mercer said.

Problem widespread

The Long Beach situation is not unique. Time magazine reported Friday that in New York, "From 2004 to 2007 - when New York's economy was doing well - the number of city residents who used the Food Bank rose 24 percent. As of 2007, more than one out of every five New York City children relied on soup kitchens or food pantries, up 48 percent from 2004."

Kansas City's largest food bank is running out of food, and in New Jersey $1 million was disbursed early for its emergency food pantries.

Local providers are urging the community, schools and civic groups to get together to launch food drives and store owners to give what they can.

Crandall said the Salvation Army will be happy to help any group organize a food drive and will pick up the food.

Likewise, Food Finders is willing to do anything it can to arrange food pick-ups.

"We're fortunate that we've had a community that has always rallied for us," Crandall said. "We don't want to close now, especially with the holidays coming and the weather getting colder."

"We can't predict the donations we'll get," said Michael White, business administrator for the Red Cross. "What we can predict is the number of families that will come. And that will be astronomical."

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