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The Cupboard Is Nearly Bare
With Jump in Demand, Charities Fear Holiday Shortfall

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.

Zack Dizerega, a single father of two, stood against a wall as he waited for his food order. It was the 20-year-old's first visit to Loudoun Interfaith Relief. He recently moved to Leesburg from Winchester after being laid off at an assembly factory. He now earns $10 an hour at a dog kennel.

Dizerega said the food donation will supplement his grocery purchases. "Everybody needs all the help they can get," he said. "It's less that I have to buy."

Loudoun resident Nina Fields, 46, quietly filled out her food order as the crowds began to disperse. Fields, who has epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, was supported by her sister until she, too, fell ill in 2005. The two now rely on disability income and sometimes receive groceries from the food pantry.

Fields said she has noticed how the economic crunch has reduced food supplies at Loudoun Interfaith Relief. "This was not the norm a year ago," she said, pointing to a near-empty bread shelf.

For information on how to donate to the Loudoun Holiday Coalition, visithttp://www.loudoun.gov/holidaycoalitionor call 703-737-8367.

Volunteer Loudoun will collect food and household items for the coalition from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 22714 Glenn Dr. in Sterling. For a list of acceptable items for the collection drive, visithttp://www.loudoun.gov/volunteeror call 703-737-8424.

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