Cupboard is empty

Hunger: As the number of the working poor grows, a decline in grocery donations has led to dwindling supplies at many food pantries.

July 29, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Yvonne Brown has come so far -- from sunken-cheeked addict to teacher's assistant, from drawing government checks to making her own money and her own way.

Yet there she was, leaning over the counter of the food pantry at the Bethel Outreach Center in West Baltimore this week, waiting as emergency services director Georgia Crawford filled plastic bags with frozen salmon and peanut butter, dried milk and canned corn, spaghetti and bread.

"I only come when I need to," said Brown, 43. "But there is such a thing as running out of everything."

Increasingly, the faces at the outreach center's pantry -- and at food pantries across Maryland -- are those of people like Brown, whose wages sometimes do not cover the staples of life.

In an age of prosperity, the number of working poor is growing, fueled partly by efforts to reduce welfare rolls. In Maryland, officials recently announced that the number of welfare recipients has been cut by about two-thirds since 1995. At the same time, a decline in food industry donations is limiting the supply of emergency groceries.

The Maryland Food Bank, which distributes supplies to 900 food pantries and soup kitchens statewide, collects about 12 million pounds a year from the grocery industry, food drives and grants. But Executive Director Bill Ewing says he needs to increase that amount by a million pounds a year for the next five years to keep pace with need.

To help close the food gap, Ewing and others who try to feed Maryland's hungry announced last week an ambitious goal to increase the food collected at the state's schools by 100,000 pounds this year. Part of that plan includes creating pantries in schools in needy areas.

Technology, a boon to many, has contributed to the pinch at pantries. Computer scanners give grocery chains such accurate gauges of their inventories that the amount of dated and dented stock has plummeted, leaving less leftover food for charity.

"From the standpoint of food available to us, there is less," Ewing said. "More people have gotten jobs, but they're not better off. The education levels are low. Some are former welfare clients who no longer get food stamps."

Nationally, the working poor make up more than a third of emergency food recipients, according to Deborah Leff, president and chief executive officer of the national hunger-relief charity Second Harvest.

"Increasingly, these working poor are being fed at soup kitchens that were once almost exclusively utilized by homeless people," Leff told a congressional panel this year. "They are people who are working, paying taxes and contributing to the economic prosperity of our nation, but are reaping few of the rewards."

Last year, the Bethel center at 1429 McCulloh St. sent groceries home with 2,216 people. It passed that mark before July 1 this year, with 2,667 taking home provisions by the end of last month.

Those figures have escalated despite limits that Crawford recently imposed to stretch her stores of food. She restricts too-frequent users to one visit every six months, and she keeps the pantry open only 3 1/2 days a week.

The rest of the time, she works on restocking its shelves -- particularly at the end of the month, when money and food stamps tend to run out and families flock to the pantry.

Rahue Cox, 41, a home-improvement contractor with two sons and little work, visited the Bethel pantry this week for the first time in months. "I was doing pretty good until now," he said. "For me to be here, it takes a lot -- for a man to ask for help. But I'll do what I have to to take care of my sons."

Some bristle at the pantry's rules. "Yes, I'm in need of food right now," said Paulette Brown, who said she has been limited to twice-yearly visits.

Brown, 43, said she has 10 children living in her house several blocks from the center -- five of her sister's and five of her daughter's -- and no one in the house is working. Their pantry holds "string beans and dried beans -- nothing that the kids will eat," she said. "A lot of people think you come here to get over. I'm trying to feed these children."

But Crawford said she has no choice. Every few minutes, the pantry phone erupts with a buzz, constant emergency calls bringing referral after referral. Sometimes clients come from as far as Baltimore County, unable to find a pantry there open and stocked.

With government assistance harder to come by, food stamps are being used for much more than food, Crawford said. Often, they're sold or bartered. "Two days later, [the clients] are here," she said.

One food-seeker at the Bethel pantry who said he was too embarrassed to discuss his situation left Crawford close to tears Monday. No sooner had Crawford handed him his bags than he took out a loaf of bread and began to eat in front of her. When he asked whether she had any sweets, Crawford found a last piece of chocolate, wrapped in festive Christmas packaging.

"I came from a family of 10 where there was always plenty," Crawford said after the man left. "I can just imagine opening the fridge, and there was nothing in there. I would probably panic. God has always put something in my hand to give somebody."

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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