The first warning sign came in October 2007, when 1,000 more people than usual showed up to get food boxes handed out by the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, in Southern California. When the number climbed the following month by another thousand, the antipoverty group’s staff braced for the worst.
“By January we were serving 23,000 clients, well above our quota,” recalls Mark Lowry, director of the group. “In February, we had 23,396. In March, we had to stop taking on new clients.”
In the months that followed, the organization received dozens of calls each day from people in need who had to be turned away empty-handed. One of them is Geraldine Smith, 68, who lives in Santa Ana, where she is recovering from hip surgery.
“I was shocked,” she says. “It’s hard enough to ask for that kind of help. But it’s a whole lot worse to be turned away. People have got to eat. You got to have food, even if you have nothing else.”
Caught between soaring demand for their services and steeply rising food and energy costs, organizations that provide emergency food assistance are struggling to keep people from going hungry. “These are people who are worried about how they’re going to make it to the end of the month with food in the refrigerator,” Lowry says. “It’s terrible for us to have to tell them no.”
Yet around the country, in big cities and small towns, food banks that once opened their doors to everyone in need are saying no to more and more hungry Americans. So are many programs that serve hot meals to older people, homebound people, people with disabilities and others who can’t afford food.
Almost 40 percent of the home-delivered meal programs run by Meals on Wheels, for example, have waiting lists. Catholic Charities USA in Springfield, Mass., which funds a wide range of programs, including many that provide hot meals, has seen a 50 percent increase in demand at a time when operating costs have also climbed 30 percent. Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., served an average of 140 meals a day last year; by April of this year, it was up to 240, forcing the program to eliminate milk from its meals.
“It’s all hitting at once,” says Shelley Borysiewicz, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities USA. “And it’s hitting us hard.”
More need, less help
Food banks, soup kitchens, senior centers and Meals on Wheels agencies are under siege in part because the federal food stamp program, which is widely viewed as the nation’s chief anti-hunger safety net, hasn’t kept up with rising prices.
“Today, in a period of rapid inflation, people run out of food stamps even sooner, and many people turn to emergency food programs in their community such as food pantries supplied by our food banks,” George Braley, a senior vice president at Feeding America, a national network of food banks, told a congressional committee earlier this year. “Unfortunately, when they turn to those resources today, they are finding less help than usual and much less help than they need.”