More and more suburban needy resort to pantries Demand is up throughout the state

August 22, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Less than a year ago, Gary Smith was bringing home $400 every two weeks from his state job as a maintenance worker. With the money his wife earned, it was just enough to get by.

But Jane Smith lost her position at a bakery when her employer learned she was pregnant. Mr. Smith, frustrated by the state's wage freeze, left to make more money as a mechanic's assistant. Last month, when he took three days leave after his son was born, his new boss let him go.

So the Smith family found themselves at Catonsville Ministries this week, hoping that a bag of groceries and a case of infant formula could tide them over until Mr. Smith finds work or his unemployment benefits start.

The Smiths are part of the reason for the unprecedented demand this summer at the state's food pantries, volunteer operations that distribute food on an emergency basis.

Usually, summer is their slowest season. But the shelves at many pantries are virtually bare of canned goods, the Maryland Food Bank reported this week. Protein items, such as peanut butter, also are scarce.

While there is no overall figure measuring demand at the state's 600-plus pantries, workers at programs throughout Maryland said they are serving far more people this summer.

Some are unemployed and waiting for their benefits to start, or never qualified for benefits at all. In June, the state's unemployment rate was 6.9 percent -- 182,570 people looking for work. The state expects more people to run through their 46 weeks of unemployment payments by summer's end.

Others at the pantries are part of the state's welfare caseload, now at more than 200,000 people. Cutbacks in other government programs, such as disability payments for single adults, have added to the need.

Then there are the emergencies that exist in any economy. One woman went to a pantry because she had run out of money while pursuing a worker's compensation claim. Another found a job as a cook, but her doctor advised her to quit because the lifting involved damaged the nerves in her right hand.

"It's rough," said Ed Schley of the Community Assistance Network, a pantry run by several Dundalk churches, where requests for help are up 12 percent. "The major [reason for the] increase in this area is that the plants are cutting back on workers."

Much of the growth appears to be outside Baltimore, where some pantries have been working with the same clients for years. The besieged pantries are in suburban areas, such as Arbutus, Catonsville, Dundalk and Cockeysville. Shortages also have been reported in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Food pantries are a relatively recent addition to the social services realm. Pantries were virtually unheard of in the United States before 1975. In the mid-1980s, there were only 50 in Maryland.

"While the present crisis causes us dismay, it does not surprise us," said Douglas I. Miles, a policy specialist at the Maryland Food Committee.

"Not to be lost in this crisis is the even larger demand for us to find long-term solutions to hunger so that food pantries and soup kitchens will no longer be needed," he said.

The actual numbers served at a typical pantry are small, perhaps 50 families in a month. Even a small increase can severely tax resources.

At Catonsville Ministries on Ingleside Avenue, for example, the workers saw 93 families last month. Last year in July, they saw just 60. Those who have visited the pantry more than once noticed the dwindling supplies this summer.

"First time I went, they gave me a lot of stuff," said 21-year-old Tereasa Geldmacher, the mother of a 4-month-old son. "Last time I went, it seemed they hardly had anything."

Ms. Geldmacher, who had to stop working during her pregnancy, is again looking for work cleaning houses. Her fiance, William Main, takes home almost $250 a week working in his father's copier company. Although $80 is garnished by various creditors for debts he ran up several years ago, his gross income disqualifies the family for food stamps.

Ms. Geldmacher said she and Mr. Main were "young and dumb" when he ran up $10,000 in debt. She likes Catonsville Ministries because the people there are kind and not judgmental.

"They're real nice," she said. "At Social Services, they all but shoved me out the door. I hate suffering and worrying. I just hate it. But I figured, I'll make it. Everybody makes it."

The Smiths, too, are sensitive about how others see them. Although they agreed to be interviewed for this article, they declined to be photographed because they are hoping family members won't find out about their troubles. "My sister and her husband, they've got good jobs with the federal government, they just don't understand," Mrs. Smith said. "Maybe we've made some mistakes, but everybody does. Both of us have always worked. We were doing pretty good until I got pregnant."

Mr. Smith is frustrated by his inability to achieve his modest expectations for himself and his family.

"We're still going to have to go to the food pantry to feed the baby," he said. "All I'm asking for is a little rowhouse, something I can say I own. The American dream is gone."

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Donations can be dropped off at the Maryland Food Bank, 241 N. Franklintown Road, during its hours of operation, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Canned food drives also are under way, in response to the shortage. Postman Plus, a chain of postal shops in the Baltimore area, also is taking donations at its shops. 92Q Radio (92.3 FM) and Reisterstown Road Plaza are collecting non-perishable items at the shopping center this weekend: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Community pantries also accept direct food donations.

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