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Food bank, assistance requests up

As the local economy appears to slowly crawl out from the depths of the recession (see related story), the county’s neediest have yet to experience any succor from the positive news, putting a strain on social services and area food banks.

While the holiday season tends to bring out the charitable spirit in residents who have something to give, workers manning local food banks and social service agencies point out that hunger and poverty are not just a seasonal malaise, but one that has been greatly exacerbated by the deepest recession and longest period of sustained high unemployment since the Great Depression.

“It’s really, really sad,” said Sue Gottschalk, a worker for the food bank at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. “There’s a lot of anxiety and wondering what they are going to do.”

According to Erica DeVoti, outreach minister at St. Patrick’s, the number of food boxes handed out by the church this year has jumped 89 percent from the same time last year, with 221 food boxes given out from January through the end of October in 2009, and with 417 during the same period this year (even though food boxes are only distributed on Thursdays, versus Monday-Friday during previous years).

Pastor Don Ford of the Community United Methodist Church reports a similar increase in the demand for food boxes. “We’re about 75 percent over last year,” he said. “So far this year we’ve distributed around 1,400 food boxes. We gave out 900 for all of 2009.”

In a statement released earlier this month, Feeding America (an organization that coordinates a network of food banks nationwide) reported that the number of people seeking help has increased 46 percent over the past four years, from 25 million to 37 million.

Unfortunately, with unemployment benefits set to expire on millions of Americans by the end of the year, food banks will most likely see a further increase on demands for resources that are already stretched to the limits.

Federal resources are also being stretched to the limits as the economy continues to limp along and increasing numbers of workers find themselves without unemployment benefits or job prospects. A study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday showed that one in four Americans is enrolled in some form of federal food assistance. In that report, the USDA said that 42 million people are currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps), an increase of 10 million people from last year.

Locally, enrollment in SNAP has also seen a sharp increase from last year. According to Erlinda Gonzales, director of the Archuleta County Department of Human Services, countywide enrollment in SNAP rose over 42 percent this past August (relative to the same month last year) and is expected to continue to increase as the winter months set in, taking its annual toll on local employment opportunities.

However, Gonzales said that the August numbers were slightly down from July and June, leading her to wonder what had happened with the economy over the summer.

“Someone in here (requesting assistance) said some people may have moved away and another person felt that there may have been a little bit of work in the county.”

Nonetheless, the demand on social services has seen a steep increase over the past two years: 66 percent since 2008.

Gonzales stated that her office, although working overtime to meet the increased demand, was able to process applications to satisfy the needs of local residents faced with a difficult situation. She added that the federal government has responded to the economic situation by loosening criteria for social assistance.

However, it is the food banks that are seeing the most need — and the most desperate people.

“Some folks are unsure if they even have the money to put in their gas tanks to even get to the church,” said Gottschalk, adding that, “A large number of them, I suspect, are living out of their cars.”

“These people are so kind and so appreciative and so loving,” Gottschalk said. “It’s just a joy to give out of our church, out of our bounty.”

It was a sentiment echoed by DeVoti: “Outreach for St. Patrick’s is really the lifeblood of our service. I’m really grateful for people asking for help. Sometimes, that can be so hard for them.”

Asking for help is the key, of course, as Ford pointed out that, “People are eating through the effort of our local churches.”

Hungry residents needing help — or prosperous residents seeking to provide help — can contact the local food banks by calling St. Patrick’s church at 731-5801; the Community United Methodist Church at 264-5508; and either the Immaculate Heart of Mary or Pope John Paul II Catholic churches at 731-5744.

jim@pagosasun.com