2013-11-28 / Local & State

Holidays, Long Lines Challenging Food Pantries

By Pamela Sroka-Holzmann

THE (EASTON) EXPRESS-TIMES

EASTON, Pa. (AP) – Food pantry organizers who help feed Lehigh Valley’s hungry say reduced federal funding for food stamps is leading to record turnouts ahead of the holiday season.

And many are finding it difficult to keep their pantry shelves well-stocked.

The reduction came this month after a temporary benefit from the 2009 stimulus expired and means a 5 percent drop in the $80 billion a-year federal program, according to Feeding America, which makes up the largest network of food banks in the U.S.

That’s about 20 fewer meals a month for a family of four, said Janet L. Ney, coordinator of advocacy and outreach for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, 1.8 million people receive food stamps and an estimated 87 percent of those households include a child, an elderly person or a person with a disability, she said.

“Anecdotally, we have heard from people who anticipate great difficulty in managing with a smaller benefit,” Ney said. “ One family, a woman with a disability and her teenage daughter, has determined that they will need to give up meat for many meals. Another woman was concerned because . her reduced allocation came with no notice, just a smaller benefit.”

By the third week of each month, many families have used their benefits and they turn to the emergency food network for help, Ney said. And that was before the recent cuts.

Ann McManus, director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, said she already is seeing more people at emergency pantries.

Her organization warehouses food for about 200 agencies and shelters in six Pennsylvania counties. Participation tripled in the last 12 years from about 17,000 in 2002 to 45,000 this year.

Diane Elliott, executive director at New Bethany Ministries in Bethlehem, also is feeling the demand. This year they distributed 43 percent more food baskets than last year, mainly to the elderly.

New Bethany ordered 400 Thanksgiving turkeys this year, up from 250 two years ago. Elliott fears they won’t be able to repeat the feat following Thanksgiving.

“We have relied in the past on a major food drive that has provided us with the fixings we needed to get us through Thanksgiving and the remainder of the year,” she said. “The food we did get will not last beyond the end of this month.”

The Rev. Frank Fowler, pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, is in the same boat.

Fowler said the church had planned to hand out 400 Thanksgiving meal baskets on Friday and worried the same would be needed at Christmas. The pantry saw its highest turnout this month with 900 people, he said, noting the tough economy and food stamp reduction. That is coupled with a drop in donations.

“We are very challenged because of the increasing demand,” Fowler said. “This need is going to continue; we have seen it almost double in the last four years. It has not gotten better.”

At the Nazareth Area Food Bank, director Jim Byrnes said more than 340 families turned out for food this month, more than the organization has ever seen. Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops collected 14,215 pounds of food and other items this year compared with 8,600 pounds last year.

The Scout donations have provided for complete Thanksgiving meals, including boxes of stuffing, mashed potatoes, frozen vegetables and a $10 gift card to a local supermarket for a turkey or holiday ham. More than 300 Nazareth area residents each ask the bank for two bags of food a month.

“Our shelves are filled right now,” Byrnes said. “But the day before the Boy Scout collection, they were empty.”

Ellen Potter, who runs the 3-year-old Easton Area Society of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry with her husband, also has seen its highest turnout – 165 families – this month.

“It was the most families we have ever served at a single time,” Potter said.

In the past two months, the Bath Area Food Bank saw an increase of nearly 50 additional registered families leading up to Thanksgiving. Director Jeannie Wagner said there was a 15 percent jump in turnout for November.

“I’ve never gotten this high in the year for registered families,” Wagner said. “As fast as the food comes in, it goes out.”

Wagner said when donations are up, the food bank can spend an average of $2,500 monthly on food for the hungry, which feeds Bath and surrounding areas, including East Allen and Moore townships.

“I don’t see it getting better any time soon,” Wagner said. “The economy always recovers from the top down. First, it’s the upper class and then down the line. The people who are the last to recover are the people coming to the food bank.”

NORWESCAP Food Bank Director Helene Meissner said the Phillipsburgbased organization already has people in need during a rough economy and the food stamp reduction just added to that hardship. In the past year, the food bank that services Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties provided 2.2 million pounds of food to 120 charities.

With food donors pulling out, shelves are difficult to keep stocked during the holiday season, Meissner said.

“We’re just not getting the quantities we used to get,” she said.

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