Newly poor swell lines at U.S. food banks
By Julie Bosman
Cindy Dreeszen and her husband live in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. They have steady jobs, his at a movie theater and hers at a government office. Together, they earn about $55,000 a year.
But with a 17-month-old son, another baby on the way, and, as Dreeszen put it, "the cost of everything going up and up," the couple went to a food pantry this month to ask for some free groceries.
"I didn't think we'd even be allowed to come here," said Dreeszen, 41, glancing around at the shelves of fruit, whole-wheat pasta and baby food. "This is totally something that I never expected to happen, to have to resort to this."
Once a crutch for the most needy, food pantries have responded to the deepening recession by opening their doors to what one pantry organizer described as "the next layer of people," a rapidly expanding group of child-care workers, nurse's aides, real estate agents and secretaries who are facing a financial crisis for the first time. Over all, demand at food banks across the country increased by 30 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to a survey by Feeding America, which distributes more than two billion pounds of food every year. And while pantries usually see a drop in demand after the holiday season, many in upscale suburbs this year are experiencing the opposite.
Here in Morris County (median household income, $82,173), the Interfaith Food Pantry added extra hours this month after seeing a 24 percent increase in customers and 45 percent increase in food distributed in November, December and January compared with the same period last year.
In Lake Forest, Illinois, a wealthy Chicago suburb, a pantry in an Episcopal church that used to attract people from less affluent towns nearby has been flooded with people who have lost jobs. In Greenwich, Connecticut, one pantry organizer reported a "tremendous" increase in demand for food since December, with out-of-work landscapers and housekeepers as well as real estate professionals who have not made a sale in months filling the line.
And amid the million-dollar houses of Marin County, California, a pantry at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center last month changed its policy to allow people to stop by once a week instead of every other week, since there are so many new faces in line alongside the regulars.
"We're seeing people who work at banks, for software firms, for marketing firms, and they're all losing their jobs," said Dave Cort, the executive director. "Here we are in big, fancy Marin County, but we have people who are standing in line with their eyes wide open, thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I'm here.' "
The demand is not limited to pantries, which distribute groceries from food banks, supermarket surplus and individuals who donate through church or school can drives. The number of food-stamp recipients was up by 17 percent across New York State, and 12 percent in New Jersey, in November from a year before. When a mobile unit of the Essex County welfare office, as part of a pilot program to distribute food-stamp applications in other counties, stopped in Shop-Rite parking lots recently in Morris County, it was swamped.
"If one of our richest counties has people signing up for food stamps who have never signed up before, that indicates the depth of this problem with the lack of food," said Kathleen DiChiara, executive director of Community FoodBank of New Jersey. "It's the canary in the coal mine."
Experts said that chronically poor people tend to adapt to the periods where money is scarce by asking for support from friends or tapping into social services, but that working-class people who suddenly lose jobs or homes often find themselves at sea, unsure how to navigate the system or ashamed to seek help.
It is those people who, over the last several months, have started arriving in growing numbers at food pantries, which are often the first tentative step for those whose incomes are too high to qualify for government assistance. (Many pantries have a no-questions policy, though they might determine how many bags of groceries a customer can receive by the number of people in their household.)
"These are people who never really had to ask for help before," said Brenda Beavers, human services director for the Salvation Army in New Jersey, which dispenses emergency food supplies at 30 pantries throughout the state. "They were once givers and now they're having to ask for assistance."
In Morristown, Rosemary Gilmartin, executive director of the Interfaith Food Pantry, has over the last several months watched a steady stream of new faces pushing shopping carts among the cardboard boxes on metal shelves in a former nursing home. In 2008, the pantry gave away 620,000 pounds of food, a 24 percent increase from 2007.
Along with fresh apples and Nature's Path Organic Soy Plus cereal, Gilmartin, who began volunteering at the pantry 13 years ago, gives children "Dora the Explorer" books. In the past few months, she has found herself fielding more inquiries about social service programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit from people who clearly had never before hovered this close to the poverty line.
"They look shellshocked," she said. "I've had people walk back out and say, 'I can't do this.' "
She recalled one recent walk-in, a television sound engineer who lost his house to foreclosure. "His life just went reee-eeer," Gilmartin said, twirling her finger in a downward circle.
Usually, the pantry distributes food at two locations several mornings a week, including most Saturdays, and on the first and third Wednesday evenings of the month. But this month, Gilmartin decided to also open on the second Wednesday because she has been having trouble accommodating everyone.
By 5:30 p.m. on that Wednesday, a half-hour before the pantry was to open, a line of nearly two dozen had formed. Once inside, people were escorted individually through the shelves of low-fat mozzarella cheese, dried beans and Pepperidge Farm chocolate chunk cookies, where a few paused often reluctantly to explain what had brought them.
"A deadbeat husband and a loss of a job," said one woman in her 20s, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not want her friends to know she had been visiting the pantry. It was her second visit. The first time, she could barely get out of her car. "Let me put it this way it took me a long time to come here," the woman said as she added a bag of lentils to her cart. "I felt like a loser. I felt like a total lowlife."
A woman wearing gold earrings and a red Vera Bradley bag over her shoulder, who is in her 50s and gave only her first name, Louise, said she had recently lost her job and has been struggling to pay her bills.
"I can understand why people would be embarrassed to come here," she said, as she loaded her groceries into the trunk of her silver Chevy Malibu. "I guess I am a little embarrassed."
Joan Verba, 53, said she had been coming up short financially since she quit her job as an accountant after her husband became ill with cancer. When her husband died, leaving her and a 14-year-old son, she put off plans to re-enter the work force.
"The job market is so bad right now," she said. "My son eats 24-7. I just need this to supplement my food bills."
Her mother, Carol Morrison, stood nearby. "I'm just here for moral support," she said, inspecting the shelves. "And nosiness."