As demand soars, food pantries feel pinch too
Just before 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, eight people waited for the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry to open. One by one, as their numbers were called, they got a chance to “shop’’ for groceries.
Misti Jaynes picked up boxed macaroni and cheese, canned kidney beans, and bread donated by Trader Joe’s, along with ground beef and spinach from the pantry’s freezer.
“Food has gotten so expensive,’’ the Brookline resident said. “This place gives you enough to get by, the staples you need.’’
Although her husband is employed full time as an electrician, the stay-at-home mother said she has been coming to the pantry for about a year to obtain help feeding her four children, ages 3 to 15.
A year ago the pantry wasn’t so crowded, Jaynes said, but now it always is.
The statistics bear out that perception, according to Jim Margolis, volunteer manager of the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry, where he said usage jumped 30 percent last year and is on pace to rise another 30 to 35 percent this year.
Food pantries in Waltham, Acton, and Millis have also seen demand steadily rise in the years since the economic crisis began. Pantries traditionally receive healthy donations during the holiday season, and volunteers are hoping this year will be the same.
“We’re making an extra push this year because we really have to increase our donor base,’’ said Margolis.
The Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplies 550 programs across Eastern Massachusetts, distributed 36.7 million pounds of food in the year that ended Sept. 30, more than it ever had before, said spokeswoman Stacy Wong.
Local assistance programs on average used to get about 60 percent of what they needed from Greater Boston Food Bank, Wong said, but now it’s closer to 80 percent.
“Since the onset of the recession, we find that the soup kitchens and food pantries and shelters are relying on us more,’’ she said.
The Salvation Army food pantry in Waltham used to see about five new households monthly, but now there are about 15 to 20 new households asking for help each month, according to the facility’s coordinator, Joyce Hoey.
“We have seen an increase this year and last year, but more so this year,’’ she said.
Even as demand continues to rise, people aren’t donating as much as they used to, said Hoey, no doubt because they, too, are feeling the pressure of the bad economy.
The Acton Community Supper and Food Pantry began to see more users from its client communities in the middle of 2008, according to Kathy Casaletto, the food pantry’s director.
In July 2006, the weekly average was 96 households, she said, while this July it was up to 196 households, she said.
Because of the increase, the pantry relocated to larger space in Boxborough, Casaletto said, but kept the same name because it is a regional service.
She said she is hoping for a good fund-raising season over the holidays, but if tough times continue, the pantry will have to consider giving out less food or asking clients to visit less often. Now, they can obtain food once per week.
In recent years, the pantry has been seeing more families in which someone had lost a job and they were trying to hold onto their house, said Casaletto.
“We see retired on fixed incomes, and people with disabilities, and some people with master’s degrees who find themselves having to think differently than they ever thought they would,’’ she said.
While demand is up, Casaletto said, she has noticed a drop in donations of food and money in the last six months. Also, there was a cut in some federal foods available through the Greater Boston Food Bank, she said.
The federal program provides about 20 percent of the supplies coming into the Greater Boston Food Bank, said Wong. The regional agency also receives food and monetary support through individuals, companies, foundations, civic groups, and a state program.
To meet demand, the organization is purchasing more food, lobbying for as much federal help as possible, and asking donors to contribute more if they can.
“We are very fortunate that people are responding,’’ said Wong. “That said, the individual pantries and soup kitchens and shelters are also having to purchase more food to make up the difference.’’
The Brookline Emergency Food Pantry buys more than half of its food, with the rest coming from the Greater Boston Food Bank and private donors, according to Margolis. In 2009, the pantry spent $30,000 to $40,000, but this year it is on track to spend $90,000, he said.
But donations of both food and money are not keeping pace with the increased need in Brookline either, Margolis said. Though cash donations rose last year over 2009, it was also the first time the pantry did not cover its cash expenses. That meant dipping into the pantry’s savings, he said.
“So far we have not had to curtail any aspect of what we give out,’’ Margolis said. “We’re hoping we won’t have to.’’
In Millis, increased demand is pushing pantry organizers to consider applying for membership with the Greater Boston Food Bank.
“We are feeling the pinch,’’ said Judie Ackerman, a member of the steering committee for the Millis Ecumenical Food Pantry.
For now, pantry volunteers are thinking of ways to cut costs - maybe when the laundry detergent runs out they will have to stop offering it, she said, or possibly they could replace chicken breasts and hamburger with hot dogs.
“Hopefully this recession, or whatever you want to call it, lets up soon,’’ said Ackerman, “because I think people are getting very discouraged.’’