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Unemployment Up, Donations Down; Food Pantries Struggling

Local Hunger

By KATHLEEN MEGAN | The Hartford Courant

November 08, 2008

It's Tiffany's second time in the food pantry line at the Manchester Area Conference of Churches. Her boyfriend didn't want her to come, but she hasn't been able to find a job and she's tired of eating mostly pasta.

Tiffany, who is eight months pregnant and asked that her last name not be used, quit two jobs over the summer because there was driving involved and the price of gas was too high. She continued in her job as a landscape worker, but with the season change, there's no more work.

Her boyfriend makes $1,200 a month, but with a monthly rent of $985 and with the cost of utilities going up and a car payment, that leaves very little left over for food.

"I've been looking for a job all over the place," said Tiffany, "but you get looked down upon when you are pregnant. They look at my stomach and say, 'We'll call you.'"

With worsening unemployment and the suffering economy, directors of Hartford area food pantries say they are seeing longer lines, fewer donations and more clients who, like Tiffany, have held jobs or are working in low-paying jobs.

Supplies of food are running low, they say, and while the shelves have not been bare, there are times when clients leave with grocery bags that are a little lighter than usual or don't contain enough items with protein in them.

"We are seeing folks we haven't seen in years," said Lisa Goepfert, social services director for the Salvation Army, Southern New England Division. "We are seeing bigger demand, and the resources aren't there to meet the demand."

The Salvation Army runs two food pantries and ordinarily relies on Foodshare, a Hartford-area food bank, for most of its food. However, Goepfert said demand has been so strong that the pantries have had to purchase an additional $7,000 worth of food since Sept. 1.

Dale Doll, director of the food pantry and soup kitchen for the Manchester Area Conference of Churches, said she sees "so much more need, it's just overwhelming. I've been doing this for 13 years, I should be used to food going fast, but I'll think we had enough cereal to last for months and then it's gone. I had cases and cases of beef stew that I thought would last forever, but then it's gone."

"I'm just flabbergasted," said Doll. She said demand is running about 50 percent over what it was last year: The pantry gave 1,776 people a week's worth of groceries last month compared with 1,176 in October 2007. The greatest increase has been in the number of people who are working, but their wages haven't kept pace with rising costs.

"Now a lot more people are coming because things are getting tighter, everything is more expensive, no one is getting a raise," said Doll. "Everything is going up except the salary."

Because of the growing numbers of working people, Doll said, the pantry now stays open until 6 p.m. on Thursdays.

Gloria McAdam, president of Foodshare, which provides food to many pantries, shelters and soup kitchens and operates a mobile food truck, said demand is definitely up. The agency's mobile food truck is set up to serve as many as 200 clients, but lately the truck has been attracting 300 or more clients.

The agency's effort to provide Thanksgiving turkeys is also facing a particular challenge this year: Several major donors who accounted for 3,000 turkeys in past years have said they can't afford to give this year.

"We're down 3,000 turkeys to start," said Mike Hicks, communication officer for Foodshare. "We need more people who have never given turkeys in the past to do so for the first time."

McAdam announced Foodshare's goals for this season Friday at St. Augustine Church in Hartford. The agency hopes to collect 16,000 turkeys and $485,000 in cash donations. Last year, the agency's goals were to get 14,600 turkeys and $460,000 in cash.

At Gifts of Love in Avon, Diana Goode, executive director, said that demand for the agency's comprehensive services, including a food pantry, is up so much that for the first time in her experience, they have a waiting list of 40 families. "We're seeing a lot more Farmington River Valley families who can't make ends meet," said Goode. "There's a lot of concern about home heating oil, although the prognosis is good. People are concerned that food prices are going up."

She said towns like Avon have "a different kind of poor. There are people in big houses" who can't afford their mortgage payments, but also can't sell the house because of the economy.

"We have some former donors who are now clients," she said, "mostly middle-aged people, and also some students trying to pay student loans and books. ... They don't have a lot of money left for food."

A woman who asked that she simply be called "Anne," who owns a house in Farmington, said her job as a receptionist is not enough to cover increasing costs for her and her 14-year-old daughter.

As a client of Gifts of Love, Anne said she has received much-needed help with her myriad expenses, as well as groceries through the pantry. She gets mostly canned foods and some frozen meat through the pantry. "It's $20 or $30 off your grocery bill and then you can pay your electric bills. ... Electric bills are outrageous. ... If I'm not reading, the lights are off. I'm in the dark."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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