Area volunteers say growing ranks of jobless and working poor are putting a strain on services

When Margaret Young opened the doors to the food pantry at Calvary Assembly of God in Dover last Tuesday, Nov. 16, the shelves were full of canned goods and other nonperishable items, and the pantry’s two refrigerators were stocked with whole chickens.

About eight families were scheduled to come by in the early afternoon to each pick up a box of assorted food items meant to last approximately five to seven days.

When mid-day came, some 20 families showed up seeking food from the pantry. The line of cars stretched into the parking area for Calvary’s school, located at the rear of the church.

Young and the small contingent of volunteers hurried to distribute the boxes of food, so those who had come on their lunch breaks wouldn’t be late returning to work.

When the whirlwind of distribution was over, the pantry’s shelves were almost bare, save a few cases of canned vegetables and dozen or so bottles of pancake syrup.

The next day, Young and the Calvary volunteers would have to take a trip to the Food Bank of Delaware facility in Milford to see what food they could purchase for their pantry with the limited cash they have on hand. The volunteers also would make the rounds in the Dover area, checking with those who donate regularly.

They hoped to be able to collect enough to feed those who come to the pantry for Thanksgiving on Thursday.

Young said this has been the norm for the Calvary food pantry and other local entities that help feed the needy. Surging demand created by persistent high unemployment, she said, has put a strain on even those organizations with the most loyal, committed donors.

“There’s a significant increase in the number of people seeking our services,” she said. “We expect it to continue to rise, unfortunately.”

In the first 10 months of 2006, Calvary’s pantry served 358 families, Young said. This year, the pantry served 907 families through the end of October.

Young and volunteers at other local food pantries say the growing demand has brought a new clientele to their doors.

“You’ve got a large segment of the population that has always been independent and is now finding themselves [in need]. Maybe they’re not on the street, maybe they’re not out of their house, but they just don’t have enough to make it,” said Kathy Lessard, who heads up the food pantry at the Church of the Holy Cross in Dover.

Pantries are seeing more and more people who, as Young said, have “played by the rules” held steady jobs with benefits and own their homes.

Widespread layoffs and wage cuts have put people like that in need.

“I’m getting a definite increase in calls from people that are unemployed or underemployed. There is so much underemployment, people can’t make ends meet,” said Linda Hultman, who volunteers at the Wyoming United Methodist Church food pantry. “Very often it’s just one paycheck’s difference. I get calls from people who say, ‘I’ve never been in this situation before.’”

Hultman said food pantry volunteers have to be cognizant of the fact that very often their new clients are experiencing this kind of need for the first time, and that can be emotionally trying.

“It’s scary and it’s demeaning; it’s about dignity,” she said. “For those of us in the community of helping, we have to be very careful with people’s self esteem, be compassionate but be very careful. You hold more than just an acceptance or denial, you hold a very difficult situation in your hands.”

Part of that compassion, Young said, means food pantries need to think beyond canned goods and try to provide those in need with things other than food that are essential parts of everyday life.

Diapers, toilet paper and tissues can be expensive items for a family that is struggling.

“We want to give our very best,” Young said.

To do that, Young and her volunteers want to get the word about what’s happening at their pantries.

“I think everybody wants to give, but they don’t know,” said Calvary volunteer Tandi Cook. “I think they want to know. Your neighbor is your family.”

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