Record Numbers Flock to Food Banks

Number of people on food stamps is also expected to surpass a record 30 million.

Nov. 27, 2008— -- There is so much food available in America, so much "plenty" to go around -- unless you can't pay for it.

And with more and more people unable to make ends meet, food banks like Manna Foods Center in Rockville, Md., have never been so busy. The Montgomery County food pantry provides local families with nutritious staples for the dinner table. Last month alone, they serviced 3,124 families, up 55 percent from the 2,100 families serviced in October 2007.

"Manna has been around for 25 years and there have been recessions and bad economic downturns, but nothing like this," Manna Food Center executive director Amy Gabala said.

A Department of Agriculture report recently found that 36 million people lived in households it calls "food insecure," where not all family members have access to food, in 2007; 12 million of those were children. But experts say that these numbers do not reflect the worsening economic conditions in 2008.

"By the time the numbers come out for this year, I can only imagine how much higher the numbers will be," said George Braley, senior vice president of Feeding America, which represents 206 food banks across the nation.

This year, unemployment has hit a 14-year high and a growing number of Americans are struggling to make ends meet.

"A year ago, or six months ago, they were able to make their rent or their mortgage payment. They were able to put food on the table. They could put gas in their car," Gabala said. "They either lost some hours at work, prices went up, and boom."

Angela Beckwith, who worked for a professional dog groomer until it went out of business, now works as an overnight stocker at Target. She's making less than half of what she was this time last year.

"I'm feeding a family of eight with two boxes of food and one turkey," she said.

In the holiday spirit, there's a public gesture of generosity to those who can't pay: the free Thanksgiving dinner. In Oakland, Calif., they ran out of turkey and started serving chicken.

At Manna Food Center, Jerry Bozic was thankful for his holiday turkey. He saw his work as a kitchen renovator hit a lull because of the economy and was hit hard with his wife's hospital bills.

"They gave us a turkey and ... canned goods and stuff," his wife, Barbara, said. "We're not always lucky enough to get dog food, but we were this time."

Food Insecurity Claims More Americans

While Manna has enough turkeys to distribute this holiday, what happens tomorrow is a different story. With more clients and less food coming in, many pantries have become increasingly bare. People who have donated in the past are now coming in for food.

"A woman came by who said she used to donate to us every year through her church. And now she's getting food from us," Gabala said. "She was embarrassed."

The dire circumstances are not limited to Maryland. Food banks across the country have seen up to 50 percent increases in demand for food, heightened by the recession.

And as Lauren and Oscar Feinstein are finding, the supposed safety net, the federal food stamp program, doesn't lift the feeling of insecurity. This year the Feinsteins took a serious tumble out of the middle class after losing their home in a foreclosure. They thought that food stamps would help them shop for groceries, but they received only $214 a month, which wasn't getting them far.

It affects every aspect of their lives, including their kids.

"When they have a friend over, that's another thing we have to think about, we better make sure we get this kid home before lunch tomorrow," she said.

In the last year, two and a half million additional people have joined the roles in the food stamp program, said Braley, who is calling for lawmakers to put food insecurity on the agenda along with bailouts for corporations.

"In the last year, two and a half million additional people have joined the roles in the food stamp program," Braley said.

"We really would like to see the needs of hungry people addressed in the economic stimulus or recovery package that the Congress and administration will take up," he said.

"Shoring up of the food stamp program and the emergency food assistance programs," may help the increasing number of Americans where the shopping cart isn't even half full.

Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest) has a national food bank locator: