Mid-Hudson food pantries struggle to meet growing need as more seek aid
The cost of housing and food continues to increase, but for many people, wages are not rising enough to meet the increased demand.
As a result, more people are turning to their local food pantries to help feed themselves and their families.
“The need is huge,” said Michael Berg, executive director of the human services agency Family of Woodstock. “The reality is that people who have never come to food pantries before because they were able to sustain their families are now coming in.”
In the past two to three years, the number of people seeking help from local food pantries has probably increased by one-third, Berg said.
“People that are working are not able to keep food on their table,” he said. “That’s totally new to us.”
Berg said people also are seeking assistance from other public programs. He said Family and the Rural Ulster Preservation Co. (RUPCO) worked together to secure a grant of more than $1 million for emergency housing assistance. That funding was supposed to last 22 months, but was distributed within 10 months, Berg said. He said the agencies later received an additional $260,000, which also has been spent.
And Family is not the only agency seeing an increased demand for food aid.
“There’s been a growing need,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. “The number of people seeking assistance at food pantries and soup kitchens has increased significantly since the recession hit in 2008.”
In 2008, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York distributed 19.5 million pounds of food to its member agencies, Quandt said. The following year, it distributed 22.4 million pounds; and in 2010, 24.9 million pounds.
Last year’s distribution topped 25 million pounds, and Quandt said the food back would have done more but its federal funding was cut. Continued...
Most donations to the food bank come from private organizations and individuals, supplemented by the federal government, Quandt said.
Another indication of increased need, Quandt said, is that some food pantries and agencies have loosened restrictions about how often a person or family can receive assistance each month.
Berg said Family is among those agencies. He said clients used to be limited to using the pantry once a month, but they were coming in more often and a review of their financial situation proved their need. People now are allowed to come to Family’s food pantries more than once a month, he said.
Diane Reeder, executive director of the Queens Galley soup kitchen on Washington Avenue in Kingston, said her agency is on track to serve its 500,000th meal in mid-February. She said the nation is facing its greatest threat of hunger and food insecurity since the Great Depression and noted today’s families do not have gardens or the knowledge to prepare foods from scratch that previous generations had to fall back on in times of need.
Reeder also said that people who, in the past, never would have thought about applying for food stamps now have decided it’s better than going hungry.
That decision, though, can get “prickly” when the household still has an income, Reeder said. She said if an applicant’s household income is too high, the applicant will not qualify.
“And the line of eligibility is starkly clear, a black-and-white doorway that either opens to help with food, medicaid, HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program) and housing assistance, or it closes completely with a sound that resonates through you like cold, wicked black ice,” Reeder said.
Reeder said that, in 2003, she and her husband made $11 too much to receive that assistance and the rejection hurt more than any physical pain she had experienced. That was before the adoption of the 2007 federal farm bill that changed some of the eligibility standards, Reeder said.
Reeder said there are a number of causes driving households into food insecurity, which refers to lacking socially acceptable access to wholesome foods. Losing a job, mental illness, sickness without medical insurance, divorce and foreclosure are among them, she said.
Marilyn Richardson, coordinator of the Saugerties Food Pantry, and Florence Ohle, executive director of Community Action of Greene County, said they have seem the same increased need at their agencies. Continued...
“The poor are getting poorer and the middle class is disappearing,” Richardson said.
In 2011, the Saugerties Food Pantry served 3,078 adults, 2,004 children and 242 seniors, representing a total of 1,949 households.
Ohle noted that, in addition to food, the public is seeking assistance paying for shelter and utilities, but governmental funding for those purposes has been cut. The maximum Home Energy Assistance Program benefit is now $500, which Ohle said won’t cover the cost of a minimum 150-gallon delivery of fuel oil.
In the past, Ohle said, Greene County received $30,000 annually in emergency food and shelter assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But that funding was cut, and Greene County was able to secure only $5,000 in state set-aside funds, she said.
“Unfortunately, across the board, the dollars are diminishing,” Ohle said.
But there is a bright side, anti-hunger advocates say.
“One good thing that has come of the increase in numbers ... is that, with more of a focus on food insecurity, there is more help,” Reeder said. “The help isn’t coming from the government, it is coming from within. It is coming from the ranks of the ‘there but by the grace of God go I’ crowd. It is coming in greater volume in smaller donations. It is coming from food producers and farmers.”
Richardson said the Saugerties community always has stepped up to help the pantry, including with a recent raffle that raised $4,300.
“When you put the word out, everyone does what they can,” Richardson said. “We’re not hurting right now.”
Still, she said, donations typically plummet in January and during the summer, when needy children are out of school and not receiving free lunches there. Continued...
Ohle said her agency, based in Catskill, has been able keep up with increased demand, also thanks to donations.
“We’ve been lucky,” she said.
Berg agreed that the community has stepped up to donate, with local companies and individuals conducting food drives and filling food boxes.
“The community is finding ways to help,” he said.
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