The number of people claiming free surplus government food in Prince George's County is dropping, partly because of the kinds of food being given away.
Volunteers at several distribution points say the number of recipients has been declining steadily for nearly two years and was particularly evident during the latest giveaway on Wednesday and Thursday.
Jean Judd, coordinator for distribution at First Baptist Church in Landover, called Wednesday "the worst day in the time the church has been giving out food."
"Normally, when we hold these giveaways, there are lines around the outside waiting to get in in the morning," Judd said of years during which at peak she gave food to more than 750 families. Wednesday "there were 10 people outside."
"People just aren't coming out anymore," said Ada Jenkins, one of the volunteers at the Columbia Park-Kentland Community Center. "At one time we served more than 500 people here. Now we're struggling to make 230."
Coordinators and food recipients interviewed said a significant factor in the decrease was the food being distributed. Some view the products -- which include butter, flour, canned green beans, raisins, honey, peanut butter and canned pork -- as less appealing than the cheese, powdered eggs, milk and rice given away in prior years. Those products were discontinued because of expensive processing costs.
"I miss the cheese and the milk," said John McGill, 60, of Glenarden, who is paid $150 a week as a maintenance worker and supports a family of three.
Alberta Whack, a Landover resident and mother of five, also said she missed the cheese, milk and eggs. "You could do so many things with the cheese and milk. It could be used for a variety of foods."
Mildred Wood, county coordinator for the temporary food assistance program at the state Department of Social Services, played down the significance of the change in foods. She said the decline was probably a result of a variety of reasons, including apathy.
"There is a large portion of people that never participate in the program," said Wood, citing 1980 census figures that indicate more than 20,000 people in the county are eligible to participate in the program.
Not every distribution center lacked recipients. The Harvest Church International in Mount Rainier was forced to close early on Wednesday to save sufficient food for Thursday, Wood said.
The social services department distributed food to about 10,000 county residents last week, according to preliminary estimates, a drop of nearly 2,000 from 1 1/2 years ago. The department had 210,000 pounds of food to distribute. Officials did not know yesterday how much had been actually given away.
To get food, people must be receiving public assistance or earn less than a certain amount depending on the size of their family.
Another possible reason for the decline in numbers, said Wood, is a crackdown on "double dippers," families who claimed food at more than one site in the county.
Program coordinators, however, discount those theories and side with recipients. "The food is the key," said Jenkins, who has worked as a volunteer in the distribution program since its inception in 1981. "If that food comes back, so will the people."