As many gorge on holiday feasts, food banks report an increased demand among the poor

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 27, 2013

The needy braved snow or a chilly drizzle to line up in record numbers outside a Montgomery County food bank Tuesday and Wednesday to pick up some groceries for a Thanksgiving meal.

They came in all races, all ages to the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg. Young mothers with restless children. Seniors in wheelchairs. Some were unemployed, while others worked at low-wage jobs.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Many had just suffered drops in their monthly food stamps starting Nov. 1, because of congressional cost-cutting. The family pantry emptied faster than usual at the end of the month.

“Last week was really hard. We almost had no food in the house,” said Nadine Kehrer, 24. She lives in the working-class Scotland community in Potomac with her husband — who installs home security systems — and two children and three older relatives.

“We had to put our grandparents on Meals on Wheels,” Kehrer said.

It’s shocking but true that in the Washington region, one of the nation’s richest metropolitan areas, significant numbers of people still worry regularly about whether they’ll have enough to eat.

And here, as elsewhere around the country, the problem is getting worse. People at the economy’s low end have grown more dependent on charity because of a combination of stagnant wages, the job market’s slow recovery, food stamp cuts and the rising cost of living.

“Sometimes you have to decide whether you want to be warm or you want to eat. Sometimes being warm wins out,” so a trip to the food bank is necessary, said Crystal Sikes, 49, of Gaithersburg.

Sikes said her food stamps dropped last month from $160 to $111. She does odd jobs, such as babysitting, housecleaning and sewing.

“We’re not just sitting around looking for handouts. We’re trying to make things work,” Sikes said.

April Dvoryak, 49, whose husband is a Montgomery County sanitation worker, said the food bank helps her offset higher prices for clothes, gasoline and condo fees.

“We do have savings, but it’s draining quickly,” Dvoryak said.

Manna’s clients pick up cardboard boxes filled with basics, such as rice or pasta, canned meat or fish, and fresh green beans. Some were disappointed that they didn’t get a turkey, and wondered how they’d build a Thanksgiving dinner around canned salmon.

Manna always serves the most clients each year in the two days before Thanksgiving, but this year set a record. Its sites served 487 on Tuesday and 533 on Wednesday, compared with the previous high of 440 set last year.

“People are coming more often,” said Jenna Umbriac, Manna’s director of nutrition programs. “It used to be this was really emergency food. You would have a tough month, and then find your way back to self-sufficiency. Now it’s getting harder for families to bounce back.”

The same is happening across the river in Fairfax, a county with the nation’s third-highest median income.

Food for Others says 8,009 people picked up groceries at its food-bank warehouse in Merrifield from July to October, compared with 6,274 in the same period last year.

“There’s a lot of working, low-income people. They’re maids. They’re painters. They’re laborers,” Roxanne Rice, executive director, said. They wait in line wearing uniforms from Office Depot, Staples and McDonald’s.

Hunger happens 365 days a year, but Thanksgiving is the time when people focus on it.

On Wednesday, for the third straight year on the day before Thanksgiving, President Obama and his family did volunteer work at the Capital Area Food Bank’s warehouse near Fort Totten in Northeast D.C.

Obama and the rest of the country will have a good chance in the coming weeks to pay more attention. Congress is grappling over additional food stamps cuts in a proposed new farm bill.

The GOP-controlled House has voted to reduce food stamps by $39 billion over 10 years. The Democratic-controlled Senate wants to limit the cuts to $4 billion.

Food bank executives and other advocates oppose any cuts. They’d like to see the previous ones reversed.

“You can’t squeeze society every single way,” said Nancy E. Roman, chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank. “If you’re a single mom with three kids working for minimum wage, you can’t afford to feed your family. Society needs to do something to support her.”

For those of us at the other end of the spectrum, it’s a challenge to ponder as we digest our turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

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