The great-hearted machinery that works quietly all year to feed Maryland's hungry residents lumbers into high gear each November, powered by the conviction that no man, woman or child should miss a real Thanksgiving dinner.
It works in large and small ways, from the Baltimore-based Maryland Food Bank that moves a ton of food each month to hundreds of pantries and soup kitchens across the state, to volunteers such as Lou Weckesser, 74, who musters men from his Ellicott City church to deliver turkey and trimmings to the poor.
Yet the vast, intricate system that depends heavily upon donations is struggling to do more with less.
More people are hungry this Thanksgiving, according to the Maryland Food Bank. In 2001, the organization estimated that its hundreds of providers, such as soup kitchens and shelters, served more than 45,000 people a week.
This year, 86 percent of those providers said they are serving more people. More than half said they are serving more families and children than ever before, and nearly half have reported seeing more senior citizens and unemployed people. That's stretching the limit of what's available.
"If they used to give 50 families two bags of food, they now give 80 families one bag a week," said Bill Ewing, executive director of the food bank. "Many of these programs are making return trips to our warehouse."
Some of the hungry have been laid off from jobs in industries hit hard by the economic downturn and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, providers said. Others work at jobs that no longer pay enough to cover rent, food and utilities. During the economic boom, area housing costs skyrocketed out of reach of many lower-paid workers.
"It's the economy," sighed Judi Kuntz as she packed holiday grocery bags at Elizabeth House, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Laurel that serves residents in Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
A decade ago, the file of needy families at Elizabeth House was kept on a small bundle of recipe cards, fastened with a rubber band.
"Now we have three three-ring binders," said Mary Ellen Verikios, a board member and volunteer.
Montgomery County's food bank, Manna Food Center, typically does not need to buy food to replenish its stocks until September, said spokeswoman Charlotte Newton. This year, it was April.
"Need is definitely up," she said. "A lot of working families have to choose between rent and food."
At the Southern Maryland Food Bank, which serves Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, the extent of the need has become unsettling.
"When I opened the doors this morning, I had 9,000 pounds of food," said George Mattingly, the food bank's director, on one recent day. "By 11 o'clock, there was nothing left."
Meanwhile, donations to many programs are down. The Boy Scout drive that usually refills all the shelves at Elizabeth House fell short of its goal this year, and organizers had to take $1,000 out of savings to meet holiday needs.
To make matters worse, local food programs are competing with charities established after Sept. 11, 2001. On top of that, some donors became wary after the financial scandal involving the United Way of the Capital Area.
"A double whammy," said Heidi Ashton, volunteer coordinator for Shepherd's Table in Silver Spring. Fall fundraising walks for the hungry were supposed to help make up for the losses, she said. "Then there were the sniper attacks."
Some of the walks had to be canceled. In addition, organizations set up to help victims of the tornado in Southern Maryland this year drew resources away from the programs.
Times are also lean at the District-based Capital Area Food Bank, which serves 275,000 people, including residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
During September and October, the organization's Hunger Lifeline received 219 calls, compared with 76 during the same period last year.
But donations in recent months are down 10 percent compared with 2001, and food bank officials fear the downward trend will continue, spokeswoman Monica Testa said.
Joan Briscoe of Landover, who with her husband, Vincent, distributes provisions to about 30 families from a Capitol Heights warehouse through their group, Victory Triumphant Ministries, knows the Capital Area Food Bank is struggling to keep up with demand.
Briscoe gathers surplus groceries from local supermarkets, which she augments with staples from the food bank to ensure that the food baskets she provides are nutritionally balanced.
"The food bank is the backbone," she said. Yet these days there is a lag between the time she places her orders for staples and the time the food arrives. "We are having to wait while they gather the food."
Briscoe has seen some hard times in the 20 years since she began gathering food, but "this time we are moving into is much worse."
Still, Briscoe, who is deeply religious, said she has faith the Lord will continue to provide. "I believe He really multiplies the food."
At the Anne Arundel Food and Resources Bank in Crownsville, Executive Director Bruce Michalec is heartened by the efforts of local businesses and schoolchildren who were trying to collect 110,000 pounds of food by today to take his food bank through the holidays and into spring.
"I'm collecting for the cold months," he said.
But Michalec, who salvages furniture, too, sees a hard winter ahead. "I'm picking up a lot of desks from offices."
He worries about layoffs and the people who used to sit at those desks. So he goes on trying to prepare for the unknown, stocking the shelves of the food bank. Bags of emergency food can help families stretch their remaining resources.
"Food is like money," he said. "They can take their money and pay rent and heating bills."