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The changing face of hunger
If you work at a food bank, you have seen the signs:Every day brings evidence of an economic downturn.
By MICHAEL KRUSE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007
Workers at the Volunteer Way in New Port Richey pass out food Friday afternoon. The group has been struggling to keep enough food on hand each week.
[Mike Pease | Times]
[Mike Pease | Times]
Volunteers Tonya Ryan, left, and Helen Panias present Madison Pannell, 4, with a toy at the Volunteer Way as mom Heather Pannell, right, and warehouse manager Frank Galarza look on.
NEW PORT RICHEY
One recent morning, Heather Pannell from Holiday, a young married mother with a pink shirt and a ponytail, walked into the Volunteer Way on Congress Street. She had her 9-month-old son, Trenton, in her arms, and her 4-year-old daughter, Madison, clinging to her thigh. This was her first time at the food bank. "I just lost my job," she said. "Last week. Lennar Homes. I was a permit coordinator."
The economy hasn't been great of late. That's not exactly breaking news. Higher gas prices, higher housing costs, higher insurance bills, the slumping construction industry and real estate market - what all that means for food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens is this: Supply is down, need is up.
What's most striking, though, to the people who run the Volunteer Way and other food banks around the Tampa Bay area, the state and the nation isn't only that their lines are growing, or even how fast they're growing.
It's who's in those lines.
"I think the face of hunger has changed just in the last six months, and dramatically," said Lester Cypher, the CEO of the Volunteer Way. "There are some people who come here who have two jobs.
"I've been doing this since 1986," he added, "and I have never, ever seen it like this. Never. And there's no sign of it stopping.
"We have a lot of single parents who work, and there's just not enough money for food," assistant CEO Martha O'Brien said.
That's true from Alaska to Texas to New England right now.
America's Second Harvest, the country's largest hunger relief group, doesn't have specific statistics, but spokesman Ross Fraser talks to folks who work at food banks all over, and what he's hearing doesn't change from place to place.
"People are showing up that they've never seen before," Fraser said last week.
It's true around Tampa Bay, from RCS Food Bank in Clearwater to the Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg to the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank in Land O'Lakes.
And it's true, too, at the United Way of Pasco County and Pasco County Community Services in Port Richey, where people are going for other forms of help.
The United Way, for instance, is averaging 250 to 300 more calls for assistance, per week, than they were last year at this time, said Susan Arnett, the agency's executive director.
Community Services got 1,587 calls for rental assistance from October 2005 to September 2006. From October 2006 to September 2007, though, they got 2,946 calls - an increase of 86 percent.
Almost 70 percent of the people Community Services has helped this year had never been there before.
The people who work in the food banks and at the United Way and Community Services always see the homeless and senior citizens on low, fixed incomes, but now they say they're seeing more young families with children, working single mothers, working single fathers, certified nursing aides, retail workers, hotel workers, construction workers, even real estate agents and mortgage brokers.
"People that have never asked for social assistance before," said Adelaida Reyes, the director of Community Services. "They're new to this.
At the Volunteer Way, the nearly all-volunteer staff puts into black trash bags boxes of cereal, cookies, crackers, granola bars, candy bars, Quaker oats, chili in cans, vegetables in cans, diced pears, bottles of Minute Maid mixed berry fruit punch, rice and beans in sandwich bags, whatever they get from Operation Blessing in Virginia and through donations from individuals and local businesses.
They've been running out of food on Fridays over the last few months. Sometimes even on Thursdays.
The number in the database in early August of people signed up to pick up food once a month was 5,200.
Five days into December, that number was 6,006.
The next day, it was 6,028.
The day after that, it was 6,043.
This past Wednesday, it was 6,077.
"The new people," said Cypher, the CEO, "are your neighbors.
"They'll never tell you they're having that problem because they're embarrassed. But they're the ones that are building up our rolls."
Like Heather Pannell.
She could see her job fading at Lennar. So she's been looking for work for months.
"No bites," she said outside the food bank.
She got her black sack of food. Her daughter got a stuffed animal, a dog.
She put the kids in their car seats in the back of her blue Hyundai and drove off.
The line at the Volunteer Way didn't stop.
Everybody's seen the headlines.
Home Sales Plunge.
The Dwindling Dollar.
Bay Area Stuck In A Rut.
The people who don't often show up in those stories show up here.
A young woman named Bobby Fisher walked in with her husband and their son.
"I work construction," Keith Kolander said. "And it's slow."
He hadn't worked in two weeks.
"It always slows down in the winter," he said, "but this year's a little bit worse."
He said he did "framing, roofing, everything."
"Anything," he said.
A man wearing white sneakers and a collared shirt and a ball cap walked in.
"The VA sent me over here," he told the worker at the desk.
He was asked for his address.
"I don't have an address," he said.
He said he couldn't afford rent and had been evicted three weeks earlier.
"I live behind the Home Depot," he said.
A man with jeans and suspenders walked in.
Steve Molnar, 68, a boat worker from New Port Richey, signed his name to get put into the database and to get his black sack of food.
"God bless America," he announced to nobody in particular.
"Land of plenty," he said.
Times news researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4617.
How to help
The Volunteer Way is at 7820 Congress St., New Port Richey, and can be contacted at (727) 815-0433 or thevolunteerway.org. The Suncoast Harvest Food Bank is at 5829 Ehren Cutoff Rd., Land O'Lakes, and can be contacted at (813) 929-0200 or suncoastharvest.org. The United Way of Pasco County can be contacted at (727) 845-3030 or unitedwaypasco.org. Pasco County Community Services can be contacted at (727) 834-3297.