Charlotte Observer, May 31, 2008: Demand outstripping supply at food banks

Posted on


The big plastic bin labeled “crackers” was empty Friday at the Loaves & Fishes food pantry in First Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte. The shelf labeled “toilet paper” was down to nine rolls and a couple of four-packs.

Both were just stocked earlier in the week, said volunteer Katie James, hustling around with a shopping cart to fill emergency food orders for waiting clients.

By now, you know food costs are up. You know gas prices are up. You know job losses are up. But the people who feed the hungry know it on a whole different level.

“In my 20 years, I have never seen an increase this dramatic,” says Loaves & Fishes executive director Beverly Howard. “And we know it’s going to get worse.”

The people involved in Charlotte’s poverty and hunger groups get together once a month to brainstorm, compare notes and make sure no group is duplicating another’s efforts. They call themselves “Unity Against Hunger and Poverty,” and their numbers include representatives from 20 groups, from the Society of St. Andrew’s Gleaning Network to the Presbytery of Charlotte.

In April, members were asked to briefly answer the question “What are you seeing now?”

What they are seeing shocked even them. Demand is outstripping supply at every pantry and food bank in the region. The St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen at Urban Ministries jumped from an average of 275 meals a day to 350-375 a day last winter. At this rate, says Dale Mullenix, they’ll serve 97,500 meals in 2008, up 7,950 from last year.

The Loaves & Fishes pantry at Jewish Family Services at Shalom Park on Providence Road has seen requests for food more than double, from an average of 140 a month to 309 in March.

“When I locked the pantry a couple of Friday nights ago, it was not low — it was bare,” reported volunteer coordinator Susan Proctor. ” I had never seen that before.”

“We don’t cry wolf a lot,” says Marilyn Marks of the Society of St. Andrews. “We ask for money, but we don’t throw our hands up and say, `this is something we’ve never seen.’ “

They’re saying it now, she says. “We’re the canary in the mines.”

One bright spot in all of this: All the charities contacted by the Observer Friday said donations are up. Loaves & Fishes’ February food drive broke the 100-ton mark for the first time. The trouble is, the increase in donations isn’t enough to keep up with the increase in need.

“People are sticking strong behind us,” says Kay Carter, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, which helps 650 agencies in 19 N.C. counties.

What the hunger charities are bracing for next is summer, when emergency food requests typically go up. Children who usually get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at school are suddenly at home, where cash-strapped parents have to provide two more meals a day.

“You can default on your mortgage and survive,” Howard says. “You can have your utilities cut off and survive. You can’t default on providing meals for your children and survive. And that’s where we’re at.”

It isn’t just one part of the economy that’s causing the problem. It’s the combination, what Marks calls “a perfect storm” of higher food costs, higher gasoline prices, and job losses.

When the economy slows in one area, like housing sales, that affects everything that goes into buying a new house. Howard says one new client last month was laid off from his job at a moving company.

Kay Carter says the agencies that Second Harvest works with report seeing people they’ve never seen before, people who have jobs but don’t earn much.

“It’s pushing them into a situation where they were barely making it but now they’re having to ask for help,” she says.

Higher food costs don’t just increase what pantries are asked to give out. It hits what they bring in. While much of the food is donated, the pantries buy perishable food and gift cards to supplement it. On a recent Monday, Howard’s group spent $16,000 in one morning: “And that was at Aldi’s.”

The food didn’t even make it to their warehouse, she says. It went straight to the pantries “and was gone in a week.”

“This is not business as usual,” says Howard.

Want to help?

Food charities have directions for how to volunteer, donate, fill emergency bags or hold food drives. Try these two Web sites:

What do they need?

The most common need, says Beverly Howard of Loaves & Fishes:

Peanut butter. It’s high in protein, keeps a long time — and they hardly ever get it.

“People never have extra when the food drives come to their door. You have cans of soup and fruit, but you usually only have one jar of peanut butter and it’s already open.”

« Back to News