Press Enterprise (California), June 29, 2008: Rising number of Inland residents turn to food stamps, soup kitchens

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The Press-Enterprise

Two months ago, Danielle Barber got fired from her job at a grocery store and her fianc̩, a plumber, got laid off.

Two weeks ago, they lost their $750-a-month apartment in San Bernardino and moved into their 1996 Ford Taurus. Last week, Barber, 41, applied for food stamps and went to Mary’s Table, a soup kitchen in San Bernardino.

“I’ve done case management for the homeless,” Barber said before getting in line for a second plate of beef stew and gratin potatoes. “Now, I’m homeless. I’m flabbergasted.”

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Stan Lim/The Press-Enterprise

Volunteers David Alder, from left, Lorna Kenney and Alice Chapman serve food at Mary۪s Table in San Bernardino.

Barber is among a growing number of Inland residents in the past year applying for food stamps and going to food pantries for groceries and soup kitchens for meals. The increase stems from the housing market collapse, record gas prices, higher unemployment rates and the escalating cost of food staples, such as rice and beans, say food bank officials and an Inland economist.

Social service officials in Riverside and San Bernardino counties report 25 to 30 percent increases in the number of people on food stamps in the past year. They expect those numbers to continue rising over the next year.

Food banks that serve more than 500 Inland agencies, including most food pantries and soup kitchens, are providing food for 25 percent more people. This has forced food pantries and soup kitchens to make changes.

Last week, Mary’s Table cut the amount of rice and beans it hands out from two pounds to one pound because the cost of the staples has soared this spring. A Desert Hot Springs food pantry assigned people times of day to come so they won’t have to wait in line for hours in the heat. A Murrieta pantry is now seeing real estate agents and families picking up food.

“These people used to donate to us,” said Catherine Mailliard, director of family outreach at the Community Food Pantry of Murrieta.

More Food Assistance

FIND (Food In Need of Distribution) Food Bank in Cathedral City annually provides about 8 million pounds of food to 86 agencies in eastern Riverside County and the Twentynine Palms area in San Bernardino County.

In 2007, those agencies served an average of 89,000 people per month, FIND President Sam Hook said. This April, the number reached more than 117,000, he said.

“They’re caught between whether they can put gas in their car or food on their table,” Hook said.

FIND has also been affected. It had to purchase more food this year, especially fruits, vegetables and meat, Hook said. He estimated the food bill would jump from $125,000 last year to $200,000 this year. He also expects to spend an extra $30,000 on fuel to keep five trucks on the road.

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Stan Lim/The Press-Enterprise

Lupe Rivera, left, Juan Rivera and their children, Renee and baby Michael, finish lunch at Mary۪s Table last week.

Second Harvest Food Bank in Riverside, which annually supplies about 22 million pounds of food to more than 440 agencies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, saw a 15 percent increase in people served at those agencies around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Executive Director Daryl Brock said.

That number usually declines after the holidays, Brock said. It increased this year, and Brock now estimates the agencies are serving 20 to 25 percent more people than a year ago.

Food-stamp usage in Riverside and San Bernardino counties increased at similar rates. Officials with both counties said the jumps are most likely due to the economic downturn and increased efforts to sign up people who qualify for food stamps but weren’t receiving them.

In Riverside County, about 31,000 people received food stamps in May 2007, said Sayori Baldwin, deputy director of the Department of Public Social Services. In May 2008, the number reached more than 40,000, she said.

In San Bernardino County, about 46,000 people received food stamps in May 2007, said Steve Couchot, assistant to the director of the Transitional Assistance Department. A year later, the number increased to about 58,000, he said.

A San Bernardino Example

An average of 350 people get lunch six days a week at Mary’s Table in San Bernardino, an increase of about 15 percent from a year ago, director Marsha Olguin Romero said.

Mary’s Table also gives away bags of groceries on Wednesdays. They reduced the amount of rice and beans in those bags because in two months, the cost of a 50-pound bag of beans increased $5 and the price of a 50-pound bag of rice jumped $9, Olguin Romero said.

Anna Cox, 54, and her mother, Felice Mitchell, 84, both of San Bernardino, have been coming to Mary’s Table on and off for 11 years.

Five lunches and a bag of groceries a week helps them save money. Cox, who has lupus, said it allows her to pay for gas to reach four doctor appointments a week. Mitchell said it helps her make repairs to her Belle Street home and keep private health insurance.

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Stan Lim/The Press-Enterprise

The number of people eating at Mary۪s Table in San Bernardino has risen about 15 percent in the past year, the director says.

In the past year, more people coming to Mary’s Table have asked for help paying for gas, rent, electricity bills and medication, said Adrienne Schubert, vice president of Mary’s Mercy Center, which runs Mary’s Table and Veronica’s Home of Mercy, a 40-bed transitional home for women and children.

She estimated that Mary’s Mercy Center has lost 20 to 25 volunteers because of high gas prices. Also, starting last week, the center cut the hours of its 21 employees in an effort to save $38,000, she said.

More People, Fewer Donations

A year ago, Food Now, a food pantry in Desert Hot Springs, served about 35 families a week, program director Mary Prado said. Now, the pantry is serving 160 families a week, she said.

“The increase has been …” Prado said, hesitating for a few seconds and not finishing the sentence. “It’s just really hard to keep up.”

About nine months ago, Prado started a system to prevent long lines from forming during the three days Food Now is open.

Monday morning is devoted to the elderly and disabled. Those with last names beginning with “A” through “L” get food in the morning and those with last names beginning with “M” through “Z” get food in the afternoon. Everyone else gets food Tuesdays and Wednesdays and is divided by last names.

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Stan Lim/The Press-Enterprise

Armando Limon stocks a food storage area at Mary۪s Table. At the same time need is rising, many Inland agencies are dealing with more expensive food and fewer donations.

Donations are also down at Food Now, Prado said. Two months ago, she sent out 1,000 letters asking for donations. She spent about $400 on postage and got about $600 in donations, she said.

Food pantries in southwest Riverside County are getting less food donated, said Mailliard, of the Community Food Pantry of Murrieta. She is working with Murrieta officials to organize a citywide food drive next month.

The annual U.S. Postal Service food drive in mid-May yielded 10,200 pounds of food for the food pantry, Mailliard said.

That food usually lasts about 10 weeks, she said. This year, it was gone in four.

Reach Sean Nealon at 951-368-9458 or

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