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Rising need, low supply at food pantries

Agency volunteers say they are seeing more first-timers asking for help, especially those working in real estate and construction.

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published November 9, 2007


This holiday season, food pantries throughout Hillsborough County face dual emergencies. They have less food to give away, and more people than ever need help.

"Last May, this place was jam-packed slam full," said volunteer Gene Hink, 77, standing by mostly empty shelves in a supply room at the Emergency Care Help Organization in Brandon. "You could hardly make your way through.

"You can see how it is now," he added.

Director Stacey Efaw has noticed a rise in middle-class clientele, especially those who work in real estate or construction. For some visitors, it's their first handout.

"We had a Realtor come in a few weeks ago," Efaw said. "He said he used to donate to us, but he hadn't sold a house insix months."

It's a story repeating itself as working families struggle to make ends meet. Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, one of the county's largest food pantries, fed 240 families on Monday, up from 180 a year ago.

"It's all coming together in a perfect storm of high costs for gas and food and the loss of their jobs or illnesses that have impacted families," said Tim Marks, Metropolitan's chief development officer. At ECHO, donations from a summer food drive that typically last through the winter have already disappeared. When Good Samaritan Mission in Balm ran out of food by 11 a.m. one day in October, volunteers emptied their frozen reserves to feed scores of people who showed up, the Rev. William Cruz said.

"How do you feed more people with less food?" said spokesman Mark Sutherland of America's Second Harvest of Tampa Bay, a national food pipeline to the poor.

With donations down, the Kaye Prox Food Bank in Town 'N Country in September moved some clients to a waiting list for the first time. Donations have slipped because of the economy, director Marilyn Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero's food bank, which operates out of Lutheran Church of Our Savior and supplies two other church pantries, is trying to hold the line at about 380 families a month.

ECHO clients must show a referral from a church, school or social service agency before they can get food or clothing. They may come only four times, and no more often than every six months. One visit provides a week's worth of food per family member, plus basics such as toilet paper, razors, socks and underwear.

But the number of newcomers is rising, food bank directors say, and includes nurses, construction workers, real estate agents, mortgage brokers.

"We're seeing more first-timers, people coming in saying other places are out of food," said Penny Wagner-Schuster, executive director of Tampa Jewish Family Services.

What's behind the heightened demand? Illness, job loss, and rising food and gas prices, food bank directors say.

Others are fleeing weak economies elsewhere, said Camille Riggins of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, which houses a food pantry.

"People are coming here from North Carolina and Michigan for jobs," she said. "But there are no jobs here."

The crisis has reached new proportions at the Community Cupboard in Ruskin. It stopped taking new clients this month and demand in the past year has doubled to 50 families a week.

"It's sad," director Maxine Zerr said.

But sometimes a good deed comes back in unexpected ways. When a middle-age couple in Ruskin couldn't support themselves last year due to an illness, the Community Cupboard gave them food. Within a few months, the couple got jobs and could pay their bills, Zerr said. Every now and then, they send the Community Cupboard a check.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 813 661-2431 or Times Staff Writer Elisabeth Dyer contributed to this story.

[Last modified November 8, 2007, 06:29:20]

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