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Area food pantries trying to meet growing demand

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

RELATED: Food pantries try fresh, market-style approach

BY LINDLEY ESTES

Trinity Episcopal Church’s pantry gave food to twice the number of people this September compared to last.

Fifty-four households sought food during the two days the pantry was open last month at the Fredericksburg church.

Usually the pantry serves 20 to 30.

Joanne Beck, director of outreach for Trinity Episcopal, said she is seeing people who have never needed food assistance before.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “They come in for the first time and have never had to ask for food in their lives.”

Most of them told her they were recently laid off  or had their work hours cut.

Most food providers in the Fredericksburg area say they’re seeing a rise in the number of households seeking food. This comes as pantries are trying to stock up for the typically higher demands of the holidays.

Marilyn Stevens, director of SERVE, sees up to 10 new clients per day at the nonprofit group’s Stafford Courthouse food pantry.

It’s been like this for over a month, and isn’t slowing down.

“I really expected by now things would be better,” she said. “They’re not. It’s the opposite.”

SERVE helped about 100 families per week last year.

The total households visiting the pantry in the same week in 2012 is now at 149.

The pantry opens four days a week for a total of 20 hours. Stevens said that during that time they gave out 8,940 pounds of food last week.

The organization has also had to temporarily suspend its financial assistance program. The program helps people in need pay their utility bills, prescription costs and rent.

“In nine weeks we gave out what we gave in four months last year,” she said. “We have to put the brakes on it because we will run out.”

Benny Blackshire of Spotswood Baptist Church said its pantry usually serves   35 to 40 people per week.

A few weeks ago, volunteers helped 61 individuals in one hour at the Spotsylvania church.

“We have a very small pantry, but the need is so great,” he said.

Wilderness Community Church in western Spotsylvania, which previously served 104 per month, served 153 in August.

Zion United Methodist Church near Spotsylvania Courthouse served 127 in September. A month earlier, it  served 87.

And Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a coalition of area churches that works with the homeless, served 1,426 in September compared with 1,263 in August.

Oya Oliver, CEO of the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, agreed that needs are rising across the Fredericksburg area.

The nonprofit food bank in suburban Spotsylvania gets supplies through local drives or purchases excess food  at reduced prices. It then either donates the food to programs or sells it to pantries and agencies at a reduced cost.

So far this year, 20,000 people in the area received services through the food bank partner agencies and programs each month, Oliver said.

That is 5,000 more individuals than last year.

The food bank distributed nearly 3.6 million pounds of food in so far in 2012.

“There’s a need,” Oliver said. “No matter what you hear on the news, people are losing their jobs.”

Donations are also down 25 percent from last year.

“But we have a great community,” she said. “They always come together.”

According the the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of people living in “food insecure households” in the nation rose from 48.8 million in 2010 to more than 50.1 million in 2011.

Last year, 16.8 million people lived in households that were considered to have “very low food security,” a USDA term that means one or more people in the household were hungry over the course of the year because of the inability to afford enough food.

Very low food security had been getting worse even before the recession, USDA officials said.

The number of people in this category in 2011 is nearly double the number in 2000.

SERVE’s Stevens said that “the crumbling economy has even hurt nonprofits.”

Several of  Stevens’ friends at area nonprofit organizations are now out of jobs because of restructuring to cut costs.

“The past month is the worst I’ve seen it,” she said.

Lindley Estes:  540/735-1976

lestes@freelancestar.com

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