Roger Cooley said he had been wondering for a while how the food pantry was going to make it.
Cooley, who volunteers by collecting and handing out food at the Action in Community Through Service pantry in Dumfries, said he’s used to shelves starting to look a little thin in the fall after proceeds from the year’s food drives have been stretched. But last month, things were looking especially dire for the Prince William County charity — and Cooley had been noticing more and more folks showing up, needing help with feeding their families.
But something happened that Cooley hadn’t considered — the pantry was forced to shut its doors. Donations were down, and demand was up 40 percent. The food pantry’s leaders, who feed about 4,000 people per month, couldn’t make ends meet.
“It was just shocking,” Cooley said. “I said, ‘There’s got to be a way not to do that.’ Those people . . . just weren’t going to be able to get any food.”
Although ACTS’s story is a stark example, food pantries across the Washington area are feeling the pinch from more people seeking help and fewer donations to meet the need, organization leaders said. The Capital Area Food Bank, a nonprofit organization based in Northeast Washington that serves as a central distributor for many local organizations, wants to raise $4 million before the end of the year to keep up with the demand.
Individual giving has made up for lagging corporate dollars, said Page Crosland, Capital Area Food Bank spokesman. In fiscal 2010, corporate giving amounted to $982,000 of $12.5 million total in donations, which includes money from foundations, the government and individuals, Crosland said. In fiscal 2011, corporate giving made up $800,000 of $13.6 million in donations.
“The downward turn the economy has taken has hit a lot of folks hard,” said Marian Barton Peele, senior director of partner relations at the Capital Area Food Bank. “People are really using emergency food pantries more on a regular basis than a monthly basis, and these are regular sources of food for the clients.”
The food bank’s “Hunger Lifeline” is one measure of need. Phone calls to the emergency hotline, which helps callers find immediate aid from partner food pantries, increased about 30 percent over the last year.
Military families have been affected as well. Rising gasoline prices and the cost of day care contribute to families being stretched to the breaking point, said officials with the United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington, or USO Metro. That’s why the charity struck up a partnership with Capital Area Food Bank in June 2010 to help feed more families at Fort Belvoir. Between 250 and 300 people have lined up in recent months to receive food, said Dawn Fincham, who runs USO Metro’s mobile pantry. The pantry is open to all area military members, and USO Metro is considering expanding to other bases.
“When you have day-care prices going up, in some cases it’s not beneficial to go to work if you’re going to put most of that money into child care,” Fincham said. In other cases, she said she’s heard about the spouse of a military member losing a job, which adds strain on budgets.
Pastor Andrea Wilson-Whitaker operates a small food pantry out of the Refuge Praise Assembly church in Suitland in Prince George’s. She’s had a yearly budget of about $2,500 for the past couple of years — and although the budget hasn’t changed, the need has, Wilson-Whitaker said.
“We are seeing a very substantial increase in demand,” she said. “We do what we can, and people are so appreciative of whatever they can get.” Wilson-Whitaker said she extends the food she has to serve as many as possible, but eventually, “we have had to turn people away, because we just run out.”
Wilson-Whitaker said she hasn’t asked for donations to buy more food. “If we did that, the money would need to come from the community we’re serving, so it would seem kind of counterproductive,” she said.
For ACTS, the Dumfries food pantry, things ended relatively well: The community responded to the shuttering in force, donating 30,000 pounds of food and filling the organization’s bank account with $120,000 in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. ACTS reopened a week later.
Many there hope that donation rate keeps an equal pace with what seems to be an ever-increasing need for food to feed families month to month.
“It’s hard out here,” said Tina Cauthorne of Dumfries, a mother of six who stood in line at the food pantry recently. “Everybody I know comes.”