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August 18, 2010

Food pantries, soup kitchens issue call for help

MEADVILLE — Moving from Syracuse, N.Y. and settling into a new position at the Meadville Salvation Army earlier this year, Capt. Robin Holmes said among her first observations about the community was that it’s one of “very giving people — and they look out for each other, too.”

Just one of the ways that shows, she said, is in the turnout of support for the Salvation Army’s food pantry. Now, though, she said she’s seeing a change: more people who have in the past brought food to donate are now seeking food assistance themselves.

And with more demand, she’s said the concern there could be less to go around is increasingly becoming a reality.

Throughout all of 2009, Holmes said, the Salvation Army’s food pantry (one of numerous food assistance providers around the region experiencing similar trends) assisted a total of 2,603 local residents. So far in 2010, she said, that pantry has already assisted 2,477.

At that rate, “one more month, and we’ve already beat last year,” she said. “It’s amazing. ... (And) right now, we don’t have a whole lot” in the way of stock.

To address that urgent need to restock the pantry’s shelves, the Salvation Army is hosting a 12-hour fund and food drive Thursday. Along with seeking donations of the pantry’s most-needed items, the drive is also accepting cash to be used to purchase food at discount from Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest Pennsylvania, which distributes food to more than 20 agencies in Crawford County.

The Salvation Army can purchase food from Second Harvest at a general cost of 13 cents per pound, according to Holmes. That means one $5 donation can provide food for approximately 13 meals, she said.

“We’re trying to do our best,” Holmes said, “and we’re doing what we can with what we’ve got. ... (But) it’s pretty empty at the moment.”

And the local Salvation Army’s situation is not unique.

Officials in charge of New Beginnings Church of God’s local food pantry, for example, recently reported that income-based program actually had to turn some people away in July due to a higher-than-expected influx of those in need. In response, officials requested more stock from Second Harvest for this month, and the pantry was recently able to distribute food to 120 local families.

Center for Family Services Inc., which administers a countywide food pantry program with seven locations, has also reported substantial increases in demand for those services. Between February 2009 and February this year, for example, the number of households served by the countywide program had jumped from 1,007 households to 1,266 — an increase of almost 26 percent. As for the number of individuals served, the total jumped during the same period from 2,677 to 3,198, an increase of almost 20 percent.

The continuing trend is evident on a regional scale, as well.

Second Harvest is the only food bank in northwestern Pennsylvania, and it distributes food to a network of 254 member charitable agencies in 11 counties (including Crawford). As reported earlier this year, it released a study showing the estimated 72,600 people receiving emergency food each year through Second Harvest represent a 40 percent increase from a similar study released in 2006.

As it stands, in any given week, about 20,700 different people receive emergency food assistance through Second Harvest’s member pantries, soup kitchens and short-term shelters, according to officials.

And locally, that study revealed clients served by Second Harvest are often faced with difficult choices.

For example, 34 percent of clients reported having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities; 27 percent had to choose between food and paying rent or mortgage; 29 percent had to choose between food and paying for medicine or medical care; and 21 percent had to choose between food and transportation.

When faced with those realities and the resulting prospect of reaching out for food assistance for the first time, people “have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Holmes.

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