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Food banks struggling to keep up with demand

Daytona Beach News-Journal

More people face financial hardship, need help with daily necessities

Driving 82 miles to see her ailing son for five months, on top of rising gas prices and other struggles, became too much for Angela Wells to handle.

The single South Daytona mom was behind on her electric, mortgage and other bills when she turned to Halifax Urban Ministries' Daytona Beach office recently for help with food and money toward her electric bill.

Her 28-year-old son, Jay -- who had muscular dystrophy and she helped care for before he was hospitalized -- died earlier this month and his medical bills were piling up. Her hours were also reduced at work.

"I had a choice between gas money to see my son and getting other things we needed for our daily life. I just couldn't do everything" said Wells, 49, who is still close to losing her house.

Wells' story is not unlike hundreds of others that food pantries in Volusia and Flagler counties are hearing daily. Pantries in some cases are seeing double the number of people as last year.

Compounded with the increase in demand and a changing face of more working families and elderly seeking help, officials at local pantries say they are struggling to get the food they need while also facing higher prices for some food.

The state Department of Children & Families, meanwhile, also served 10,000 more local people with food stamps in June compared to last year.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which provides free and reduced priced food to 87 Volusia County agencies, is trying to fill the need. Second Harvest has seen an overall drop in free food from the government, officials said. Donated items from manufacturers and retailers are also down. Several local pantries say they are spending more at Second Harvest's Daytona Beach site and other retailers to make up for less donated items.

Second Harvest officials said they are paying 30 percent more in the past year for items they purchase from wholesalers and distributors, but have only passed on 25 percent to the pantries. The price for a third of the other food they provide at a largely reduced cost has remained unchanged for about five years, according to Greg Higgerson, Second Harvest's vice president of development.

Hope is on the horizon with the federal government recently passing the Farm Bill that includes more funding for food, some of which officials with the United States Department of Agriculture said will make its way to food banks starting in August.

"There is some light at the end of the tunnel," Higgerson said.

Congress recently approved $250 million, up from $140 million a year for commodities the USDA purchases and distributes to food banks across the country, according to Jean Daniel, director of public affairs for USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. That amount had not changed since 2001, Daniel said. The Farm Bill also includes an additional $50 million to buy fruits and vegetables for schools and food banks.

Part of the problem, Daniel said, is that since 2005 the farm economy has been so strong there has been less bonus commodities such as fruits and vegetables available to purchase.

Local food banks are looking forward to the arrival of more government food. They said they couldn't survive without it and without Second Harvest.

The Rev. Troy Ray, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries, which has four locations and a mobile unit for West Volusia and Bunnell, said the agency gave out about 1,400 packages of food in June compared to 850 in January. Rent assistance provided from January to June was $23,418, up from $9,053 for the same period last year.

At Wells' house Tuesday, her 26-year-old daughter cooked ham and vegetables received from Halifax Urban Ministries. Her daughter, who was recently in a vehicle accident, and 19-year-old son are both looking for work after losing their jobs. She also has a 9-year-old son.

Wells, who got help from several agencies this year, is grateful.

"It's always hard any time you have to ask for help," said Wells, who makes less than $20,000 a year assisting clients at a local healthcare facility. "You are always afraid people are going to judge you."

Amy Johnson, 38, of Ormond Beach, a single mom of three, received three bags of food this past week from the Jewish Federation of Volusia-Flagler Counties in Ormond Beach. She cleans for a salon, but it's closing soon, and she's looking for work.

"It's just tough," Johnson said.

Gloria Max, executive director of the Jewish Federation, said if the agency doesn't start getting donations, leaders don't know what they will do. About 30 calls come in daily from people needing help with utilities and rent.

"These are people who worked and paid their taxes and did what they were supposed to do and through no fault of their own they lost their jobs," Max said.

The Gifts of Love food pantry in Edgewater is giving out double the food as last year. The pantry buys most of its food at Save-A-Lot in Port Orange. Volunteers are evaluating the amount of food they give out because of the cost.

"People who say the economy is not bad have not seen the real world. We have a lot of families losing their homes," said Kathy Rock, volunteer who helped start the pantry.

Several of the Catholic churches with food pantries are changing their geographic boundaries of who they will serve. They want to be sure they help as many people as possible as costs continue to rise and that people are not going to more than one food bank.

In Bunnell, Pastor Peri Dixon of New Beginnings Multicultural Church said its Food for the Soul pantry is seeing 450 families a month from Flagler County, up from 100 a month when the food pantry opened in 2006.

"People who come in have been sleeping in their car and the beach and sleeping in woods. They show up at the door and they are hungry," Dixon said. "We are in a crisis. It really is a great need."

How to help

For more information on agencies providing various services:
CALL: 2-1-1 or 386-253-0564 for the United Way's First Call For Help

By the numbers
1.62 million Pounds of food provided by Second Harvest last year in Volusia County

68,082 Pounds of food provided by Second Harvest last year in Flagler County

46,692 People on food stamps in Volusia and Flagler in June

1.52 million People on food stamps statewide in June

87 Volusia County agencies served by Second Harvest

4 Flagler County agencies served by Second Harvest

SOURCE: Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida; Second Harvest Food Bank of North Florida and state Department of Children & Families.


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