Food-Stuffed Buses Drive Home Plight of the Needy

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

The big blue Montgomery County Ride On bus took up four prime parking spaces in the busy lot of the Whole Foods Market on Rockville Pike yesterday.

But T-shirt-clad volunteers assured shoppers that it was for a good cause. They were there as part of the Manna Food Center's first Stuff a Bus food drive, an attempt to raise awareness about the needs of people struggling in a tough economy.

The bus caught Claudia Bezerra's eye. The massage therapist asked what was going on and returned a few minutes later with groceries.

"I wanted to do what I could," she said as she handed over the bag. "It's not much . . . but hopefully it will help."

Similar scenes played out at three other Whole Foods stores in Montgomery -- in Bethesda, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg. In addition to providing parking space for the buses, Whole Foods gave 5 percent of gross receipts from purchases at the four stores to the Rockville-based nonprofit food center, which seeks to end hunger in the county.

The county, which operates the Ride On buses, allowed the agencies to use the vehicles for the day.

Tim Lanigan, Manna's director of food collection, said economic pressures are driving more people to seek help from groups like his. In April last year, he said, Manna provided food assistance to 1,700 families in Montgomery; last month, 2,263 families received aid. Lanigan said Manna is anticipating a 20 percent rise in clients this fiscal year.

The case is much the same at food agencies across the Washington region, where goods are disappearing almost as quickly as they arrive. The increasing costs of groceries and utilities, as well as fallout from the mortgage crisis, are pushing people to seek support wherever they can, food pantry employees say.

Officials at Our Daily Bread, a nonprofit agency in Fairfax County, said they have a four-month waiting list for families that want to be part of their food delivery program, which provides supplemental groceries for up to three months. Last spring, the Arlington Food Assistance Center had 600 clients on its list. This year, that number was 850.

Chris Garris, Our Daily Bread's food program manager, said the group's food pantry was emptied in mid-February. Businesses and community groups rallied and provided more than $4,000 worth of goods, Garris said. Still, officials said, they can't keep their shelves stocked.

"All agencies definitely need the help," said Lynn Brantley, president and chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, the region's primary nonprofit food distributor.

People are going to the market and finding that it costs more to buy the same products, said Kristin Valentine, a spokeswoman for Bread for the City, a Washington relief agency.

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