Use of food pantries and homeless shelters has increased sharply around Maryland in the past year despite the state's prosperity, according to an anti-poverty group's survey.
Early results of the survey, conducted by the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore, show that Maryland food pantry patrons took home 59 percent more groceries this year than last and that the number of children seeking shelter went up by nearly a quarter.
Though both numbers have risen in the annual survey over the past five years, the increases this year are much greater, said Rob Hess, president of the center.
Advocates for the poor attribute the numbers to the slashing of food stamp and welfare benefits. Maryland's cash assistance rolls have fallen by two-thirds in the past four years as the state has tried to move the poor from welfare to work.
"We've slashed the welfare rolls dramatically," Hess said. "The reality is those folks have transitioned into jobs that in most cases don't pay a living wage. There's this gap between what they're earning and what they need to survive."
The 200 providers that have responded to the survey report that overall, 30 percent more people have used food pantries and that they're taking home more bags.
In September 1998, for example, those providers reported giving out 36,280 bags of food.
This September, they gave out 57,626 bags.
Since July 1, donations to the Maryland Food Bank have increased by 2 percent -- but use has gone up 10 percent, said Executive Director Bill Ewing.
The food bank's 52,000-square-foot warehouse, which provides food to 900 programs around Maryland, is emptier than Ewing has ever seen it.
For the first time, he said, the bank has stopped accepting new clients.
The grocery industry's use of electronic scanners has reduced food donations in recent years by allowing supermarkets to gauge their inventory more efficiently. Ewing has relied more on fresh produce to fill the gap.
`A burden on us'
At St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in West Baltimore, use of the soup kitchen and food pantry is up 77 percent, said the pastor, the Rev. Damien Nalepa.
The soup kitchen, run every Thursday, draws about 300 people a week. It used to draw 170.
"The increase has just put a burden on us to come up with the resources to meet the needs," he said.
Shelters are equally full, said Bea Gaddy, who provides about 60 emergency beds at several city locations.
"It's children and, believe it or not, it's older people who are seeking a place to sleep," Gaddy said. "This is getting bad."
Going to Glendening
Hess said he and other advocates hope to meet with Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the next few weeks to seek an increase in state aid for emergency food.
As the holidays near, providers hope for more donations.
The Center for Poverty Solutions, the Maryland Food Bank and MIX 106.5 radio will sponsor a "Stuff-A-Bus" drive for nonperishable food this weekend at the Southdale Shopping Center in Glen Burnie, St. Thomas Center in Owings Mills, Dorsey's Search Village in Ellicott City and at 7944 Honeygo Blvd. in White Marsh. The food drive runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.