Saturday, January 2, 2010

Soup Kitchens and Food Pantries Were Needed More Than Ever in 2009

As the holidays have just ended, I thought I would diverge from the usual financial article writing, to report and comment on a very important social action issue. This Christmas Day I spent volunteering in a soup kitchen called Christine’s Kitchen (see pictures), in West Orange New Jersey, as I have been doing for the last four years. The number of patrons has increased dramatically since I began participating. Alice Hoffman, the soup kitchen and pantry coordinator commented: “The Kitchen started in 2002, with 10 people coming regularly once a week on Saturdays, and 5 families using the food pantry twice a month. Now we have over 150 at our regular Kitchen, with 250 families relying on the food pantry 5 times a month. 20 churches and synagogues contribute hosting duties throughout the year, offering their time and food, to ensure that the Kitchen runs smoothly”. Ms. Hoffman confirms that the largest increase in need has occurred this past year. No wonder, since 2009 has shown the biggest unemployment rate in decades, record foreclosures, pensions evaporating and more people going broke than ever. Lines in the queues are getting longer, with people from all ages, racial backgrounds and classes. Without steady paychecks, our less fortunate neighbors are relying more and more on charity from kitchens to feed their families and survive.

This is not just a phenomenon in New Jersey and the Northeast, but everywhere in our country. In Kauai, Hawaii with a 10% unemployment rate, soup kitchens are filled to capacity and because of a shortfall last year; the Hawaii Foodbank was forced to purchase 1 million pounds of food to make up the difference. In South Carolina, where 1 of 7 adults in York County and more than 1 of 5 in Chester County are unemployed, soup kitchens are feeding people with longer lines than ever before. The charity Feeding America says “demand at its 63,000 soup kitchens and food pantries is 30 percent higher than the end of 2008, as spiraling unemployment and repossessions increase the demand for extra help for Americans who would otherwise go hungry.”
Seniors are especially hard hit. Older Americans are crowding soup kitchens and pantries for the first time after seeing retirement funds, second jobs, and nest eggs wiped out by recession. Marti Forman, CEO of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. comments: “What we see in line is lots of gray hair, lots of walkers”. Catholic Charities USA, which has 170 agencies across the country helping the needy, issued a 2009 third-quarter report that found a 54 percent increase in requests for food and services from seniors nationwide compared to the same period last year. Despite the increased need, it can be difficult for some older people to come forward and seek help. “They’re of a generation that feels they took care of themselves, and now in these desperate straits they don’t want to acknowledge it,” said Catholic Charities spokesman Roger Conner. “With seniors and retirees — people that were planning for that period of their life — they are often very proud and very private, and they want no one to know of the difficulties they might be experiencing.” At St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, 64-year-old Sherry Whittemore was collecting her monthly box of canned juice, pasta, beans and vegetables. She began coming to the food bank in January after losing her customer relations job at a Fry’s Electronics store. “I thought I would be able to get a job soon, but that’s just unrealistic,” Whittemore said.

There is no immediate solution to the problem. I can only encourage everyone to donate as much food as possible to their local food banks and pantries. If there is a shortage in your area of volunteers at a kitchen, please find the time to participate. Remember, the current plight of a neighbor in need could happen to any one of us. Let’s hope that 2010 brings some relief and improvement to this serious social problem.

C. Cohn

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