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Food banks struggle to keep up with demand

December 01, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

TRI-STATE -- As layoffs, foreclosures and rising utility bills force more families to seek help, many Tri-State area food banks are cutting back on portions and turning to emergency funds as they struggle to keep up with the demand.

"It's been tough," said Mary Anna Kline, coordinator of the food bank at Williamsport Zion Lutheran Church, which has seen the number of people served nearly double in recent months. There, the food bank has already used all of the 7,500 pounds of food collected at the Harvest Hoedown in October and is quickly using up the approximately $12,000 raised at that event, Kline said.

The shortage isn't due to a lack of community support, food bank coordinators said. In fact, this has been a "banner year" for community-based food drives, with companies and organizations stepping up that have never held food drives before, according to Ruth Anne Callaham, executive director of Food Resources Inc., which distributes food to numerous Washington County pantries.

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But the increased community effort hasn't been enough to keep up with growing need, particularly because it coincides with another troublesome trend, Callaham said.

In the past, Food Resources Inc. used to receive about 100,000 pounds of donated food each year from reclamation centers, which dispose of mislabeled and unsalable items rejected by grocery store chains, Callaham said.

"That has come almost to a screeching halt," she said.

Instead, most of those reclaimed items, such as cereal boxes featuring an out-of-season sport or soup cans with outdated seasonal labels, are being sold on the secondary market, such as in dollar stores, Callaham said. Food Resources Inc. has not received a shipment of reclaimed items since June, she said.

The food bank continues to receive donations of unsold perishable food from local grocery stores, including bakery, deli and butcher items, Callaham said.

At The Salvation Army food pantry in Hagerstown, those grocery store bakery donations are essential to keep up with the growing need, Maj. Robert Lyle said.

"Our food pantry pretty well stays empty because of the number of folks," Lyle said.

Over the past two and a half months, The Salvation Army food pantry has seen an additional 10 to 12 families each week, Lyle said.

Food drive donations have remained steady, but they haven't been enough, Lyle said. To keep up, the charity purchases food from bulk retailers, but the bills add up fast, he said.

The brown-bag program at Food Resources Inc., which serves the working poor, has seen a 20 percent increase in demand since June, including many people who have never been to a food bank before, Callaham said.

"Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn't call and say, 'I've been laid off,'" she said.

The food pantries at South Central Community Action Programs in Franklin County, Pa., served 1,017 households in November, up 25 percent from November 2007, when they served 812, emergency services coordinator Cherie Rawlings said.

"I've been here 10 years, and these are the highest numbers we've had," Rawlings said.

The pantries haven't turned anyone away, but they have had to cut back on the amount of food distributed, Rawlings said.

"It's just not as large of a food box as would be normal," she said.

Jefferson County Community Ministries in West Virginia has also seen an increase in demand at its food bank, with almost 30 new clients each month, Executive Director William Willingham said.

The food bank has managed to meet the need without cutting back on rations so far, in part because of large donations made in November by Charles Town Races and Slots, and Boy Scouts of America, Willingham said.

"That's going to carry us for a few months," he said.

Still, all the local food banks called on area residents to give anything they can and go beyond their normal contributions to help fill the shortage.

"Everybody, in their cabinet, has something that they're not eating," Lyle said. "Instead of sitting in their shelves going back, it would be good if they could gather that up."

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