Witchita Times Record News, May 22, 2008: Not enough

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By Judith McGinnis

Thursday, May 22, 2008

For a growing number of North Texans, there is too much month at the end of the money. Rising fuel costs, growing utility bills and grocery store prices have left many who were at least breaking even in 2007 now seeking aid for the basics.

As a result, the network of agencies that helps families with these needs is facing an ever growing challenge.

“We۪re barely matching the need now,” said Mary Stengel, executive director of the Wichita Falls Area Food Bank. “More than 34,000 people in Wichita Falls live at or below the poverty level and we۪re not reaching them. We۪re doing our best but we know hunger is a reality for too many of our neighbors.”

The WFAFB provides food for more than 100 partner agencies in 13 surrounding counties. This includes senior citizen centers, low income day-care centers, shelters and children۪s feeding programs like Back Pack Buddies.

It۪s most visible outreach, however, is food pantries operated by churches. Floral Heights United Methodist Church is exceptional in that it opens the doors of its pantry three days a week. Single moms, working families and the elderly all count on the once-monthly assist the pantry gives their food budget.

“I just began coming about three months ago,” said 80-year-old Esther. “Every time you go to the grocery store the prices have gone up and gasoline, well, I don۪t know how long it۪s going to be before we have to walk or just stay home.”

Esther۪s disabled daughter lives with her and in January, another daughter moved in after becoming unemployed. The daughter has just started a new job but Esther said she doesn۪t know if they will still need the pantry.

“Last month we had 283 new families come in needing food,” said Pantry Coordinator Aimee Brown. “We typically help an average 500 to 600 people a month, but last month it was more than 2,000.”

Interfaith Ministries۪ Director Jean Payne said its food pantry is now “dangerously low.” Supplied mostly by local churches and the community, she said that for the first time in more than a decade she has had to make a special appeal for donations.

“Through April we۪ve helped 65 more families with food than we did this time last year,” said Payne. “What۪s worse is that we۪ve received more than 4,000 pounds less of donated food than this time last year.”

Payne said the agency is also seeing more new clients seeking help with utility bills, prescription medications and rent; and an increasing number are people who have jobs but are struggling to make ends meet.

At Faith Mission, caseworker Arnold Vasquez said he۪s seen a growing influx of people from around Wichita County seeking aid, mostly with electric bills and rent. His job is to assess need and use agency funds to help as many people as possible.

“People are calling more every day. The cost of utilities and gas keeps going up but wages aren۪t,” said Vasquez. “Last year when a family would call for assistance with a $400 rent payment, I might be able to offer $250. This year I۪ve had to go to $150. I۪ve got to make the money go as far as I can.”

All three agencies admit a tough economy can impact donations. As families try to balance their own budgets, they might hesitate to give away food or write a check.

“What I always say when the economy gets like this is if you۪re sitting in your house with the lights on and there۪s food on the table, you need to think about others who don۪t have those things,” said Payne. “There are more of them than you know.”

Interfaith Ministries is accepting donations of food or cash at its new offices at 1006 11th St., or by calling (940) 322-1365. To support the Wichita Falls Area Food Bank, call (940) 766-2322 or drop food donations off at 1230 Midwestern Parkway. For information on how to best aid the clients of Faith Mission, call (940) 723-5663.

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