Sister Patricia Kane couldn't dish out the heaps of macaroni and beef at Our Daily Bread fast enough yesterday to keep up with the appetites of hundreds of men, women and children who had stood in a blocklong lunch line for more than an hour.
Now -- more than ever -- the noon meal at Baltimore's largest soup kitchen has become the only meal of the day for some.
"I'm astounded," the nun said. "We've fed almost 900 people today, and there are still 100 more waiting at the door."
Soup kitchens throughout the city say they have all had to stretch donated food supplies, and now some must close their doors periodically to regroup.
This year, the breakfast crowd at Manna House, in the 400 block of East 25th Street, has grown so large -- and funds so depleted -- that it stopped the morning meal on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Beans and Bread, a South Baltimore soup kitchen, also has closed its doors one day a week to stretch its supplies another day. The staff at the Franciscan Center on Maryland Avenue also wonders how long the food will last.
In a state where nearly 60,000 people are out of work, the recession is partly to blame for the swelling crowds at the soup kitchens, said Eileen Gillan, spokeswoman for the Maryland Food Committee.
"We're seeing a lot of people who never set foot in a soup kitchen before. For many people, the cost of living has increased at a far greater rate than their incomes," she said.
More children are also going hungry. In Maryland, 61,000 children under age 12 are going to school without breakfast or to bed without dinner or are eating smaller portions because there isn't enough to go round, Ms. Gillan said.
"Most parents will skip meals themselves before they let their children go without," she said. "For them to have to cut portions in their childrens meals means that they've truly reached the end of their rope."
At Our Daily Bread, parents with young children are fed first and no second helpings are allowed. Others make do with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches handed out at a side door, rather than wait for hours in line for a hot meal.
Aaron Brooks, 30, and his young daughter, Onisha, were among the first in line at 11:30 a.m. yesterday as the kitchen opened its doors. Out of work and on disability, the West Baltimore man says his Social Security check doesn't go far enough to house his family and feed them, too.
"God has blessed this place," he said. "People think this place is just for the homeless, but a lot of other people eat here, too. It really makes my day."
Steven Tuttle, director of our Daily Bread, said nearly 40 percent of the center's visitors are like Mr. Brooks, people who are down on their luck and whose food stamps and assistance have long run out by the end of the month.
Mr. Tuttle recalled one who ate at the center for three weeks in April and May. The man, dressed every day in the same smart suit and tie, would eat his lunch quietly, alone, then leave. One day he confided that he was wearing his only good suit in order to go to job interviews and that he was eating his lunch at the soup kitchen so that his wife would have more to feed the children at home.
"People think of the homeless and hungry, they think of the old lady with the shopping bag or the derelict on the park bench. But they are families and the recently unemployed, too," Mr. Tuttle said.
"More than 70 percent of the people who come here are under the age of 30," he said.
Normally, Our Daily Bread feeds more than 650 people a day, but this week supplies have dwindled as unprecedented crowds swarmed into the center's tiny dining room when three other soup kitchens temporarily closed their doors.
Yesterday's crowd was almost as overwhelming as it had been Tuesday when a record 1,100 people lined up in the 200 block of West Franklin Street, said Mr. Tuttle.
"We were stretched out to the limit on Tuesday," Mr. Tuttle said. "We didn't turn away anybody hungry, but we dug to the bare bone and served everything in the cupboard, and afterward it was very bare."
"When this place is the only one open, people will come from the north, south, east and west just to eat," said a 26-year-old man named Mark. Asked where he lives, he stamped his foot on the hard cement and grinned and said, "Right here, on the street."