Churches supply food banks as poverty permeates the suburbs

by Kimberly Pennington , National Correspondent |

(Cambridge Self Help Food Bank)

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) -- Churches play a key role in helping food banks nationwide that face increased demands and declining resources, according to the director of a food bank serving hungry families just outside of Washington.

Cecelia Vergaretti, Director of the Northern Virginia Region of the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves communities just outside of Washington, told Christian Examiner hunger tastes the same, but poverty seems now to have permeated the suburbs.

"Demand is definitely on the rise," she said. "It's almost as if poverty is moving out of the inner city and into the suburbs. The amount of pounds we've distributed in northern Virginia has gone up fairly dramatically."

Higher cost of living is a contributing factor. "We're seeing an increase in the working poor," she said. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in D.C. is $2,000. How does anybody afford anything? With housing costs and anything else, by the time you get to food, the wallet is kind of thin."

Calling churches the "backbone" of feeding people across the nation, Vergaretti said she is thankful the churches have stepped up to the plate.

"Thank you so much," she told Christian Examiner. "They're not always our largest partner, but they're a huge chunk of what this food bank is about – all sizes, shapes, denominations – some on no budget except for what is donated and tithed."

Vergaretti's account is consistent with a recent Associated Press report that shows dependence on food banks rose sharply during the 2008 economic downturn and has continued to rise despite an improving economy.

James Ziliak, founder of the University of Kentucky's Center for Poverty Research, told AP contributing factors may be the chronically unemployed who have given up searching for work, underemployed people whose part-time or low-wage jobs do not fully cover their expenses, and 2.5 million people no longer eligible for food stamps whose other resources do not meet their needs.

Ray Siner, director of California's Shasta Lake Community Food Pantry, said church donations helped fill voids left by declining private and wholesaler donations. Redding, California food pantries have had to pool resources to make ends meet, and the Salvation Army has turned to vendors to assist the 350 family it serves each week.

Midwest food bank directors credit churches and a Midwest ethic of taking care of their own with enabling their organizations to meet rising demands and expenses.

Cari Drees, Special Events and Communications Coordinator at Fargo, North Dakota's Great Plains Food Bank, told Christian Examiner churches are on target with their help.

"Churches are very strong here. We see a lot of churches hold food drives, and because we're very blessed, we can create four meals out of every $1 donated," Drees said. "Churches also hold fund drives. I am able to tell them, 'What you just donated is this amount of meals.'"

Drees said local farmers donate fresh produce to the organization which served 13.6 million meals across North Dakota and Clay County, Minnesota in 2014. "We're very blessed in that we're seeing donations hold steady or go up," she stated.

People are surprised to learn of increased food bank demands in North Dakota given its image as an affluent state, according to Drees. She explained the influx of people coming to the state created a "gold rush scenario" of housing shortages and high prices on housing and other goods. Many people, such as the elderly on fixed incomes, now have to choose between food and medications and other basic expenses.

WORLD'S BREADBASKET SEES RISE IN COSTS

In what is called the world's breadbasket, Linda Rounds, President of the Board of the McPherson County, Kansas food bank has not seen an increase in chronic dependency on the organization but a rise in its own costs.

"Funds go down so much faster. This is my sixth year with the food bank, and I can't believe the difference in how much we're having to spend on food from when I first started," she told Christian Examiner.

Churches are "fantastic," she said. "A lot of the time, they will have a fundraiser. If we put out a brochure about donating, they are always right there to donate. A lot of times, they do it without asking."

ONTARIO FOOD BANK ASSISTS NEARLY HALF ITS RESIDENTS

Located in a community of 13,000 residents, the McPherson County Food Bank has already assisted 4,635 in the first half of 2015.

Church assistance to struggling food banks is not limited to the United States. When Cambridge, Ontario pastor Steve Adams learned the shelves were empty at the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, he started a campaign to get Cambridge churches to meet the need.

"Cambridge Churches Step Up to Help," the food bank announced on Facebook. "Over 15,450 pounds of food collected."

"I felt God's confirmation that we needed to do something as a church, something God-sized," Adams said.

Each food bank leader who spoke with Christian Examiner addressed misconceptions by the general public about food insecurity.

DO OVERWEIGHT NEED FOOD?

Vergaretti said people often ask how overweight people who use food pantries could be hungry. "That really bothers me [to hear that]," she said. "Many folks who can't afford to buy food are usually living in areas that might not have large grocery chains. They rely on mom and pop stores which have higher prices and less fresh produce. They're eating empty calories." Her organization is trying to provide as much fresh produce and low sodium, low fat products and as possible to increase food quality for those in need.

Rounds said everyone probably knows someone who is hungry but doesn't realize it since pride can interfere with a person's ability to ask for help. She regularly reminds people that individuals seek food assistance for various reasons and everyone is vulnerable. "It could be us next year. You don't know what kinds of things could come like the loss of a job. Until you walk in someone else's shoes, you don't realize what it is like. They may have a nice car or house, but it doesn't mean they can eat. Think about how many people over the last years have faced difficult economic situations. They may be lucky to have a home or may be losing it," she said.

"We use as tag line, 'Together we will solve hunger,'" Drees said. "I think people look at these programs and say. 'It's impossible and it's not. Here in North Dakota, we are the closest state in the nation to having all of our counties served. 'Together' means everyone saying, 'We're not going to tolerate this anymore.' People are stepping up."