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More pleas for food, fewer donations

Patrons at the Bootstraps Food Pantry in Beverly. Patrons at the Bootstraps Food Pantry in Beverly. (Robert Spencer)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / November 23, 2008
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How many paychecks are you away from Bootstraps?

That's the question Sue Gabriel wants people to ask themselves. As the executive director of Bootstraps Food Pantry in Beverly, Gabriel has seen more people reaching out for help lately, including familiar faces that went from being donors to becoming clients in this year's turbulent economy.

"We're absolutely seeing a dramatic increase in the number of families who need our services at the food pantry," Gabriel said. "The face of our clients has shifted a bit. It's not just very low income any longer.

"We're definitely seeing a lot more folks coming in where there's been a layoff or life-changing event that has forced them to come through our doors."

As national jobless claims spike to the highest level since after the 9/11 attacks, more food pantries and soup kitchens in the area have reported significant increases in the number of people seeking assistance.

It's not just the unemployed seeking help, but also more middle-class families struggling to make ends meet, according to those running pantries and soup kitchens north of Boston.

"We've already spent $10,000 more than we did last year in food," Gabriel said. "That's at least a 20 percent increase in the number of families, and our year is not over."

With Thanksgiving just days away, more families are depending on food pantries or soup kitchens to carry them through the holiday and beyond.

Donations have been on the decline, but organizers say they are hopeful for the annual holiday season food drives and cash donation appeals.

The Merrimack Valley Food Bank, which serves 99 programs in Greater Lowell, the Merrimack Valley, the North Shore, and southern New Hampshire, has received reports that the number of people seeking food assistance from those programs has increased anywhere from 10 to 50 percent this year, said Amy Pessia, executive director.

"Considering what people are experiencing with jobs being lost, with increasing household expenses, like transportation costs, some people are using their credit cards to make a lot of purchases, so therefore they're struggling to stay above," Pessia said. "We saw an increase from 1.8 million pounds of food in 2006 and 2007, to 2 million pounds distributed in fiscal year 2008. And we're the smallest of the four food banks."

From October 2007 to October 2008, Bootstraps gave out more than 20,000 bags of food to Beverly and Manchester families, who often receive a bag of nonperishables, one with perishables, and a third bag of extras that can be filled with anything from produce to toiletries, Gabriel said.

The Rev. Edgar Gutierrez-Duarte of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Chelsea started a small food pantry operation from there last year, and said that in that short period of time, he's already seen a noticeable increase in the number of families reaching out for help. The bulk of the donations have come from St. Luke's parishioners, but donations have dwindled due to the economy, he said. As a result, Gutierrez-Duarte has applied to become a member of the Greater Boston Food Bank, but private donations are desperately needed right now.

"Up until recently it ranged from 10 to 15 families per month," Gutierrez-Duarte said. "Since last month, they have gone up to 28 families and we expect to reach beyond that in Thanksgiving."

In Chelsea, where many families work low-income jobs, the annual Community Thanksgiving Luncheon put together by the organization Centro Latino, is expected to draw such a large crowd this year, probably more than 500, that it was moved from Centro's offices to the Williams Middle School, said Betty King, one of the organizers.

The need for free food in Chelsea is so great that King drives 45 minutes each way every Monday, to a Whole Foods Market in Wayland, to pick up day-old bread and pastries to bring back to Centro's clients. Wayland's was the closest Whole Foods with food pick-up times still available, King said.

King's Whole Foods initiative began just four weeks ago, but it's become so popular, she would like to extend it to three times a week.

"Our kids never get to taste Whole Foods things," King said. "It's good for our kids to know how to eat healthy, whole-grain things."

At My Brother's Table, a soup kitchen in Lynn, organizers have weathered the increase in food prices, as well as the growing number of people coming through their doors, said Ilia Stacy, executive director. But cash donations are needed to keep the operation going, not only for food costs, but for rent, utilities, and waste disposal fees, Stacy said.

On average, My Brother's Table serves 220 dinners and 85 lunches a day.

"What I think is different is we're seeing people coming in who have the appearance of being better off," Stacy said.

"At lunch, we have people coming in who are working. . . . We don't ask questions. We serve meals to whoever comes."

High gas prices may have brought more people to the pantries and soup kitchens in the summer, but the biggest culprit now is layoffs, said Trudy MacIntyre, executive director at Haven From Hunger, a soup kitchen and pantry in Peabody.

"I'm getting more and more people coming in saying, 'I have no food. Can I sign up for food?' " MacIntyre said.

"Some are laid off, some are mothers with children, some work but don't bring in enough money. . . We need donations - cans, money, any way we can get it."

This year, Haven From Hunger will donate about 400 Thanksgiving turkeys to families and will serve Thanksgiving dinner in its Wallis Street location. Already serving about 85 lunches and 65 dinners a day, MacIntyre said she expects those numbers to increase.

"I think it's going to get worse," she said. "Circuit City is closing down, DHL workers are getting laid off."

Pessia, of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, said those who are able should think about donating food, time, or money beyond the holiday season.

"It would be extremely helpful to get food donations in January or February, when people need to turn up their heat to a comfortable level, and then again in July and August, when kids are out of school and you have to feed them three meals during the day," Pessia said.

"Any of us could be one paycheck away from needing food assistance."

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com

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