The Cupboard Is Nearly Bare

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

As the holiday season approaches, Loudoun County charities are feeling the impact of the economic downturn, as demand for their services outstrips donations.

Officials at the Loudoun Holiday Coalition, a county-run group that provides food, toys, clothing and other items to the needy in November and December, are worried that the program will run out of supplies for the first time in its 12-year history.

The coalition has received $9,481 in cash donations this year, compared with $29,486 at this point last year. Meanwhile, the number of Loudoun households that received items rose 13 percent to 1,600 in 2007, and coordinator Kara Early said she expects a 20 percent increase in demand this year, based on the state of the economy.

The program serves low-income families, disabled adults and the elderly, with eligible residents visiting a central location to shop for items. If supplies run low, a child might get one item of clothing instead of a complete outfit, Earl said. "What we give out is dependent on what we get in," she said.

At the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank Network, which serves a swath of northwestern and central Virginia that includes Loudoun, dwindling donations are not the problem. Contributions from the public and food companies have increased over the past several months.

But the increase isn't enough to offset the rise in demand, said network spokeswoman Ruth Jones. The branch office that serves Loudoun, six other counties and Winchester distributed food to 17,785 people in September, compared with 9,585 in September 2007. Jones anticipates a bigger-than-normal spike in demand this holiday season.

"The demand is so high, it's sort of canceled out the increase of food and actually left us short," Jones said. "We're seeing unprecedented numbers of people coming to us for help right now as it is. We're waiting to see what happens for the holidays. We just need to be prepared for what's coming.

"I'm sure people are feeling the effects of the economy and are holding on a lot tighter," Jones said of potential donors. "We need people to dig as much as possible this year to help out."

At Loudoun Interfaith Relief's food pantry in Leesburg, the stockroom is lined with empty crates that normally are full of food. The nonprofit group is relying on several upcoming food drives to stock its pantry for the holidays. Rising food and fuel costs have caused an increase in demand this year, said Bonnie Inman, the group's executive director. Since July, the organization has helped an average of 1,100 households a month.

Inman said the group usually receives enough food donations during the holidays but will monitor its inventory closely this year. "Has anybody been turned away? No. Are we scared that we might? Yes," she said.

On a recent afternoon, members of 67 households visited Loudoun Interfaith Relief's office on Miller Drive in Leesburg, where each received three days' worth of food. Clients are allowed to make two such visits per month.

While families crammed the lobby, Interfaith Relief volunteers feverishly packed grocery bags in a back room.

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