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Food supply in dire straits

Local pantries struggle to help the growing number of people in need
by: staff photo by Jim Clark Food recipient Francisca Avendano, left, is assisted by volunteer Diane Sherwin in the Snow-CAP facility in Gresham.

What a difference a few years makes.

Back in 2007, before the onset of America's economic downturn, volunteers at Snow-CAP Community Charities in Gresham scrambled to serve 4,000 clients a month.

'And we thought we were doing all we could,' said Judy Alley, Snow-CAP's executive director.

Fast forward to 2010 and monthly demand more than doubled to 10,000 people - a number that's sure to be even higher this year.

With statewide unemployment at about 10 percent and Oregon leading the nation in childhood hunger, the largely volunteer-run food pantries struggle to keep up with demand while donations drop.

Demand for food has more than quadrupled at the East Portland/Gresham Corps of The Salvation Army, said Major James Sullivan.

Just three years ago, when the corps was based in downtown Gresham, it served about 400 to 450 people a month. Since then, the corps has moved into a new highly visible building on Southeast 194th Avenue and Stark Street in the densely populated, high poverty Rockwood area.

Now, the food pantry averages 1,861 people - or 640 families - a month and the numbers are growing. Between Jan. 1 and August of this year, demand is up 30 percent over the same period in 2010, Sullivan said.

Drop in donations, less food

While demand skyrockets, The Salvation Army's donations are down 10 percent, resulting in smaller food boxes that barely feed a family for a day or two, Sullivan said.

'We have no choice,' he said. 'We simply give out less food. It (the economy) has really hit East County hard.'

Sullivan recalled driving to work one recent morning and seeing a woman and three young children all pulling wheeled suitcases behind them. 'I thought, 'Oh, how cute. They're going on a trip.'

Once at work, he saw that the children had wheeled those pink, Barbie-themed suitcases to the food pantry so they could help mom carry the food home.

'Their trip was here,' Sullivan said.

Most of The Salvation Army's food comes from neighboring businesses and grocery stores, but it's not enough to meet growing demand. Snow-CAP and The Salvation Army also rely on the Oregon Food Bank, which provides food for 5 cents a pound.

But with donations to the state food bank down, and with private donations dwindling, pantries and food banks struggle to provide more food for the ever-growing number of hungry residents.

Snow-CAP spends $50,000 a year to supplement its offerings, Alley said. Even with the extra expense, there are fewer choices on pantry shelves - all while more families circle the pantry selecting items to bring home.

On a typical day, Snow-CAP's pantry serves 100 families. That number spikes at the end of the month when cash-strapped families stretch dollars thin.

Crowded quarters, tempers flare

A whopping 197 families crammed into Snow-CAP's waiting room on Friday, Sept 30. On such days, as many as 40 people sit and stand in the cramped waiting room built for 20, creating a pressure cooker of stress and language barriers.

Sometimes there is pushing and situations become explosive. Like when a child's toe is accidentally stepped on, and the offender speaks a different language than the child and the child's parents, making an apology moot.

'It doesn't bring out the best in anybody.' Alley said. 'They're just packed in cheek to jowl like cattle. It's inhumane.'

It's gotten so bad, Alley is considering doing away with the drop-in system and scheduling clients in batches - first 30 families from 10 a.m. to noon, and the second 30 from noon to 2 p.m.

Or instead of allowing clients to come in once a month for a three-day supply of food, they'll come in six times a year. 'I don't think we can sustain the way it's going now. I just don't know what else to do,' she said.

Clearly, the place needs a bigger lobby, but this is no time to start a fundraising campaign for a brick-and-mortar project. Especially when the real need is for food.

'Our donors are not the Rockefellers,' Alley said, adding that many long-time financial supporters are themselves unemployed, underemployed or financially support relatives suffering in this economy. 'They're getting hit as hard as our clients.'

Changing client base

Pantry clients also are struggling to come to terms with their changing economic realities. In some cases, former Salvation Army and Snow-CAP donors are now clients.

'These are not long-term low-income people,' like the elderly, disabled veterans or the chronically poor who typically rely on such services, Alley said.

About half of them are former members of the middle class, humbled to have to ask for help.

'The younger middle-management employees who were donors are now in line for food,' she said. 'Frankly, that scares me.'

Lorrie Marston, family services coordinator for The Salvation Army's local corps, said when she began volunteering five years ago, most callers needed food. Once or twice a week, callers also inquired about help paying rent or energy bills.

Now, multiple calls a day come in seeking help paying those bills, in addition to paying for prescriptions, eye glasses and clothing. 'I'm seeing more people living in cars and on the street. Families days from eviction. Or they've had their power or water turned off. 'Sometimes for months,' Marston said.

She also has noticed a change in client's attitudes toward their dire straights. While the newly poverty stricken appear ashamed and shell-shocked, the long-term unemployed are more open about needing help.

'They're stressed,' Marston said. 'It's like, 'I need help. This is what is happening to me.''

Grace and gratitude

Francisca Avendano is nothing but thankful for help from Snow-CAPP. She discovered the food pantry a few months ago when her bus drove by and she noticed a crowd of people gathered at Snow-CAP's front door.

This week - as her two oldest sons, ages 4 and 2, sit quietly - she shopped for her family of five, including an out-of-work husband and a 1-year-old baby. She carefully selected frozen chicken, snap peas, almonds and bread for her cart. A volunteer repeatedly urged her to take more. With a family of five, she can select four items from the bread shelf, not just one, for example.

'Without this food, it would be really hard to get by,' she said through a Spanish-speaking Snow-CAP volunteer. 'It is very good for the community.'

Snow-CAP client Amber Peterson Phillips of Southeast Portland proudly earned a bachelor's degree in June and is now earning a master's degree in public administration at Portland State University.

Her husband is a disabled Army veteran and they have a 7-year-old daughter. With only her husband's Social Security disability income of $1,416 a month, Snow-CAP's food pantry helps the family of three make ends meet.

'They've definitely helped us a lot,' she said while hunting through Snow-CAP's clothes closet for long-sleeved shirts for her daughter. 'Paying our power and water bills are our biggest issues. And food.

'We eat a lot of beans and rice, and peanut butter and bread. It's amazing how much of our food stamps go toward milk.'

You can help

Local food pantries need donations. Here's a sampling of what's most in demand.

• Vegetables and fruit (fresh and canned)

• Milk, baby formula, baby food and disposable diapers

• Soups

• Chili

• Canned hash or ravioli

• Tuna

• Tuna, Hamburger or Chicken Helper

• Flour, baking mix or pancake mix

• Instant mashed potatoes

• Meats and deli items

• Laundry soap to wash donated clothing

• Toiletries such as bars of soap and toilet paper

• Can openers for the homeless and families living in their cars

• Pet food

Food lifelines

Please call the agencies listed below before visiting to double-check hours, make any necessary appointments and to make sure that you fit their eligibility guidelines.

St. Vincent de Paul at St. Henry Catholic Church

Type of Service: Food Boxes

346 N.W. First St., Gresham

10 a.m. to noon Tuesday and Saturday

(503) 235-8431

Zarephath Kitchen

Type of Service: Meals

59 Ava Ave., Gresham, 97030

11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday

(503) 667-2692

Zarephath Pantry

Type of Service: Food Boxes

59 N.W. Ava Ave., Gresham

10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday

(503) 667-7932

Salvation Army Gresham

Areas Served: East of 122nd Ave.

Type of Service: Food Boxes

Address: 473 N.E. 194th Ave., Gresham

9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; Closed for lunch noon to 1 p.m.; Closed the first Wednesday of the month

(503) 661-2704

Salvation Army Gresham Harvest Share

Type of Service: Fresh Produce

473 S.E. 194th Ave., Gresham

9:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, first come first serve

(503) 282-0555 (same number for the Oregon Food Bank)

Rockwood Seventh-day Adventist Church Harvest Share

Type of Service: Fresh Produce

1910 S.E. 182nd Ave., Gresham

9 a.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month

(503) 282-0555 (same number for the Oregon Food Bank)

Innovative Housing Harvest Share

Type of Service: Fresh Produce

826 S.W. 29th Way, Troutdale

10:30 a.m. on the third Wednesday of the month

(503) 282-0555 (same number for the Oregon Food Bank)

Snow-CAP Community Basket

Type of Service: Other Programs

17805 S.E. Stark St., Gresham (behind Rockwood Church)

noon to 1:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month

(503) 674-8785

Snow-CAP Community Charities

Area Served: Multnomah County east of 82nd Ave.

Type of Service: Food Pantry, Clothing

17805 S.E. Stark St., Gresham (behind Rockwood Church)

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday

(503) 674-8785

New Beginnings Christian Center

Type of Service: Food Boxes

3300 N.E. 172nd Place, Gresham

12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday; 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

(503) 256-6050

Sanctuary Church - A Jesus Community

Type of Service: Food Pantry and Emergency Food Boxes

3103 S.E. Orient Drive, Gresham

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first and third Saturday of the month

(503) 663-9146 or ajesuscommunity.org.