Lean times mean more mouths to feed
With record demand for emergency food, the holidays of 2009 might be the most difficult in history for area food banks and pantries. And a new class of needy — breadwinners who have never faced sustained unemployment before — is compounding the challenge.
"Some of our agencies are giving out 60 percent more
than they did a year ago," said Ernie Bretzmann, executive director of the United Way of Collier County. "It's indicative of the economic situation. Even when the job is lost and the money is gone, food and shelter are still essential."
Much as the United Way provides funds to programs that help the needy, the Harry Chapin Food Bank provides food to 140 Southwest Florida agencies. "In the last two years, the key agencies we serve are up 82 percent in terms of clients," said Al Brislain, the food bank's executive director. "I've been doing this more than 30 years, and I'd never seen more than a 10 or 12 percent increase in a year. Eighty-two percent is incredible."
Individual agencies are seeing anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent increases in clients served, Mr. Brislain added. Some of those increases come from the newly needy: people who have lost their jobs and are navigating assistance programs for the first time.
That's certainly the case at St. Matthew's House. "A lot of people who come in have never done this before," said Vann R. Ellison, president and CEO of the agency that has served more than 2 million meals in Collier County over the past 20 years. "A well-dressed man came in last week and looked like he'd come to volunteer," Mr. Ellison said. " But he had a couple of kids with him…He'd been laid off from a bank and was wondering what he could do to get help for his family because everything is going to pay the mortgage. And he doesn't have food."
The United Way's Mr. Bretzmann describes the new demographic: "They're people formerly known as the middle class. These are folks who were working, making ends meet, and not in a chronic situation. Now they're in trouble and they don't know what to do."
Unfortunately, it's an all too common story these days.
And the lean times translate to a hungry holiday season.
In 2006, St. Matthew's House gave away 350 turkeys — more than ever before in its history, Mr. Ellison said. Last year that number was 900, and volunteers in the dining hall served more than 500 turkey dinners to residents, the homeless and anyone who was hungry on Thanksgiving Day. "This year we're on the same pace as last year," Mr. Ellison said.
While the winter holidays help focus attention on those in need, St. Matthew's House and other organizations that serve the needy in Collier County know summer could be even more demanding on them. That's because many of the people they feed are children — many of whom receive free lunch and free breakfast at school. "The holidays hit, summer hits and those kids aren't getting free meals anymore," Mr. Ellison says.
As more parents are out of work, more children need food.
Mr. Ellison estimates nearly half of the people St. Matthew's will help feed this Thanksgiving will be children.
At the Harry Chapin Food Bank, Mr. Brislain shares that concern. "Our big concern is next summer. Is it going to be worse?" he said. "Three years ago, the letter carriers' food drive pretty much tided us over until fall," he added. "Two years ago, that food ran out in August. This year, it ran out in July." If projections come true and the economy gets worse before it gets better, "We're looking at a very difficult time."
But amid the tough times and gloomy forecast, there is optimism.
"We live in a very generous community," Mr. Brislain said. "Those who are lucky enough to have a job or have resources, we'd hope they'd step up and give a little bit more to help those who don't."