Demand at Food Banks Increasing

By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

One of the region's largest food banks said this week that the number of Loudoun County residents seeking its help has nearly doubled since the fall because of the downturn in the economy.

"What's concerning us now is that demand is growing at a faster pace than we've ever seen at the food bank," said Martin L. White, chief executive of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network, which distributes food to people in Loudoun and 24 other counties in northwestern and central Virginia.

Officials at the network said they are getting requests for assistance from almost 4,000 people a month in Loudoun, up from about 2,000 in November.

For years, the nonprofit organization has served mostly Loudoun residents who are poor enough to qualify for government assistance. But with rising food and fuel costs, network officials say their clientele has expanded in recent months and includes many people whose incomes are higher and who had not sought help before.

"We're finding a whole new population coming to food banks," said White, whose organization helps stock food pantries such as Loudoun Interfaith Relief in Leesburg and Seven Loaves in Middleburg. "These are people who don't qualify for government assistance but they find that their wages aren't keeping up with the pace of inflation.

"This is a class of the population that was just getting by and now they're not able to get by."

In addition to the increasing demand from wage-earners, the food bank network said it is fielding more requests from elderly people who rely on fixed incomes. For example, the network's Winchester branch, which serves people in seven counties including Loudoun and Fauquier, provided food to nearly 33 percent more elderly people in March than it did in March 2007, officials said.

Bonnie Inman, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief, said her organization began noticing an increase in demand when food and fuel costs started rising last summer. Inman said her office meets with about 55 households a day, compared with 32 a day a year ago.

"It's devastating to hear people's situations," Inman said. "You see people who think they'd never be coming here. They've been tapped out."

At the same time, donations to Blue Ridge are down because of people's tight budgets, food bank network officials said. The organization fell about $6,000 short of its goal for cash donations last month and is about $21,000 behind in its donations goal for the year, officials said.

Even in a good year, they said, food bank donations typically drop off in the summer just as the need for contributions becomes more acute. Children who receive meals at school free or at reduced rates no longer have that option in the summer.

Asked about donations at Loudoun Interfaith Relief, Inman said: "Right now, things are okay. We feel like we can meet the need." But she said that could change as the summer progresses.

"We have always said we would never turn anyone away. We hope we won't have to do that," she said.

One of the biggest food collection efforts of the year will take place Saturday -- the National Association of Letter Carriers Food Drive, during which residents may leave nonperishable food at their mailbox, and a mail carrier will pick up the items and deliver them to a food bank. Last year, the drive brought in about 140,000 pounds of food for the Blue Ridge network.

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