Rising Demand for Food Pantries

It should come as no surprise that, as the prices of food, gas and heating oil rise, more people are struggling to make ends meet.

One sign of the times: Increased financial pressures have led to a surge in demand on food pantries.

They're typically volunteer-run centers that give out free food to people who are usually on public assistance. But these days, as WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports, not everyone seeking food help is unemployed.


[Sound of street outside food pantry]

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Its 6 o'clock on a weeknight and many of the people coming to the Catholic Charities Food Pantry in Dorchester are on their way home from work. One woman pulls up in an SUV. She won't give her name or record an interview, but says she's in shock she needs food help because she has a masters and a full time job in social services. She never thought she would use a food pantry.

[Sound inside food pantry]

BRADY-MYEROV: Inside the center another woman, Myra, who is embarrassed to give her last name, is there to pick up two shopping bags.

TRANSLATION: I work, but what I make isn't enough for my three kids and me.

BRADY-MYEROV: She came with her friend and co-worker Santa, who also works 30 hours a week at a restaurant.

Santa says it's much better for her now that the pantry is open at night. This food pantry just extended its hours after 5 p.m. one day a week to meet the growing demand from people who work.

BETH CHAMBERS: It's one where they have families and are seeing the increase in costs and can't buy the food.

BRADY-MYEROV: Beth Chambers, who runs the Catholic Charities food bank, says they've had a 40 percent increase in demand over the past year.

CHAMBERS: We used to say that food pantries and people coming in, came in waves. At the end of the month, it was always a lot more people at the beginning of the month it was fewer. And the month of September and October were slower. We don't have any waves anymore. It goes straight across the board every single month and there isn't down time.


BRADY-MYEROV: Another indication of demand is a new food pantry that opened in the financial district in Boston at St. Anthony's Shrine. It primarily serves working people.

Also, the Hunger Hotline run by Project Bread has seen as 23 percent increase in calls over the past few months. Project Bread's Executive Director Ellen Parker says demand has been building since January, and she's worried about the future.

ELLEN PARKER: There is no question in my mind this year is going to be very, very tough. The preliminary data from hunger screening from community health centers show that people are having a really tough time.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Hotline has also extended its hours into the evening and on Saturdays to serve a growing number of people who work but don't have enough money to buy food.

PARKER: I think there's a new group of people coming in. I think of them as maybe a mother of two making $40,000-45,000 a year, which when you are thinking about poverty that's not necessarily who you think of. But when you consider the cost of gas, food, I think people making $60,000 are struggling.

BRADY-MYEROV: The hotline sends callers to food pantries and other assistance. One of the largest suppliers of food pantries in Eastern Massachusetts is the Greater Boston Food Bank.

[Sound of packing food at food bank]

BRADY-MYEROV: Volunteers are packing pasta for pick up at the main warehouse in Boston. The Greater Boston Food Bank has seen a 10-40 percent increase in demand from pantries. Catherine D'Amato is president.

CATHERINE D'AMATO: It's a time I've never seen in my 30 years, ever. In terms of this perfect storm with food and fuel, it's a way in which everyone is hurting, everyone is feeling an impact.

BRADY-MYEROV: A survey in the spring by a group of Massachusetts hunger relief agencies found 52 percent of pantries ran out of food and couldn't meet their demand in the past year. D'Amato says that's not because the Food Bank didn't have enough. It did, but pantries are typically volunteer run, don't have vans for transport, and can't scale up to meet the rising demand. D'Amato says pantries that can, are scheduling more pick ups of food.

D'AMATO: Inventory turns much faster today than it did just six months ago, which is another indicator of demand.

BRADY-MYEROV: The survey also showed that 58 percent of free food centers faced a decrease in donations of food. It's a trend that's worrying hunger relief agencies in this time of increased need.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on October 21, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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