Middle-Class Residents Finding Themselves With Hat in Hand

Food pantries and other charities around the region are struggling to help the still spiraling number of formerly middle-class people knocking on their doors.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Germantown woman was loading boxes of food from the Manna food bank into a shiny sport-utility vehicle one recent afternoon when she was approached by a donor dropping off food.

"What group are you with?" the donor asked the woman, who promptly burst into tears. With her Toyota Sequoia and quilted Vera Bradley bag, she had been mistaken for a volunteer -- rather than a client waiting to take home a bag of potatoes.

"I'm a mother of four just trying to feed my kids," the woman sobbed to the donor, who was taken aback, then sympathetic.

Such awkward scenes are playing out frequently at food pantries and other charities across the region as they struggle to help the still upward-spiraling number of formerly middle-class people knocking on their doors.

For the charities, the surge in demand has tested their resourcefulness -- and sometimes their patience. Not only must they stock millions of pounds of additional food in bigger warehouses, but they also must adopt fresh tactics to help the newly needy, who can be more bewildered, more emotional and more selective than their traditional clients.

One intake volunteer at Food for Others in Fairfax County, for example, has learned that the formerly affluent won't wait outside in line for food at evening neighborhood giveaways, lest they be spotted.

"We have more people than ever coming here thinking they'd never ever be here," said Amy Ginsburg, executive director of Manna Food Center in Montgomery County. Manna, along with most food area pantries, requires people to prove by income that they need assistance.

The group is moving into a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Gaithersburg on Oct. 5 to meet the growing need. Manna gave away 3.1 million pounds of food to 102,519 Montgomery County residents last fiscal year, up from 2.1 million pounds the year before. They've increased food drives, and cash donations have kept pace.

Manna's workers and volunteers try to make the experience as dignified as possible for everyone, helping clients load their cars and handing out juice boxes and pretzels to families waiting in increasingly longer lines. On a recent morning, residents dressed in pressed khakis waited for boxes of fresh produce, meat and canned goods alongside those in dirty T-shirts.

"Not having enough money for food is a bizarre, foreign experience" for the new needy, Ginsburg explained. "They're still getting over the shock."

Ginsburg and others running local charities expect the number of residents seeking help to continue to rise even as the economy improves. Jobless numbers are increasing, they point out, while severance checks and unemployment benefits are running out.

Fairfax found in a recent survey of 89 churches and nonprofit organizations that 32,044 households received food assistance in the last quarter of 2008, a 39 percent increase from the previous year's fourth quarter. Almost half of the respondents reported helping families that had never asked for aid before -- many of them former middle-class residents now unemployed or facing foreclosure.

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