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Food programs across county are seeing increased demands

Submitted by News Desk on Fri, 09/19/2008 - 2:49pm

Crystal Whitehead sat down with her family to a free hot lunch at Antioch's Light Ministries church for the first time last week. It was also the first time the 26-year-old mother of three had ever sought this kind of assistance.

"Normally, I feel there's other people out there that need (these programs) more than I do," she said.

While her husband stealthily forked a bite of salad off her plate, Whitehead said that with the price of basic necessities jumping and her husband, a hardwood floor installer, out of work, her family needs the help right now.

"With everything going up, it's just really hard," she said.

Bread of Life, the Saturday lunch program run out of the church for the past 25 years, is the only weekend meal program in the central and eastern parts of the county, according to officials at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties.

The program is feeling the crunch of a tough economy, and Bread of Life organizers say they need more donors and volunteers to help meet the increased demand from people whose food budgets have shrunk just as costs are going up.

"We're just being creative," said Sonya Gasaway, a volunteer with Bread of Life.

Food programs across the county are feeling the same strain, said Larry Sly, executive director of the county's food bank.

Sly said statistics indicate the need for food is up 20 percent from a year ago. The food bank serves 98,000 people a month— 67,000 of them in Contra Costa County.

While most of the food bank's clients are in chronic need, Sly said an increasing number are working-class families who, like the Whiteheads, have not had to turn to a food pantry or meal program before.

The county is experiencing a perfect storm of higher food prices, higher fuel prices, rising unemployment and an unstable housing market that has put families out of their homes, social service workers agreed.

"I think that the cost of gas, the increasing cost of food, has put people in a predicament where they can't make a go of it anymore," Sly said.

In Richmond, the Bay Area Rescue Mission started the year by reducing its staff by 20 percent to cut costs. Now, already at capacity for meal service, it's having to turn away hungry patrons, according to President John Anderson.

"Last year, we averaged 4,000 meals a day through the food pantry and served at the mission," Anderson said. "That is our capacity. Unfortunately, we're turning away another 1,000 requests every day, and that is an increase."

The Souper Center, another Richmond meal program, is also attracting more people seeking a hot meal, Director Joyce Hutson said. The center served 4,000 people a month at the beginning of 2008, but this summer, that number rose to 5,000 people a month.

"The economy — you know how it is — everybody's feeling it one way or another," Hutson said.

Loaves and Fishes is another food program with locations in Antioch, Pittsburg, Oakley and Martinez. It was forced in June to close its Concord dining room because of changes at the church that had hosted it, said Executive Director Rick Richardson — a move that may have contributed to increased attendance at other locations. Loaves and Fishes is seeking a new, easily accessible venue in Concord.

Back at Antioch's Bread of Life, Gasaway said the program will have its work cut out trying to attract volunteers and donors through the end of the year. With the economic downturn as widespread as it has become, most families are having to put their own needs ahead of philanthropy, Gasaway said.

"The holidays will be here before you know it, and I know we're going to have a big need this year," she said.

To reach Bread of Life, call The Light Ministries church at 925-778-1639.