BALTIMORE – State officials say welfare reform has boosted business at Maryland food pantries by 15 percent in the last year, as the working poor turn to food pantries and soup kitchens to make ends meet.
And the working poor who need kosher food are no different.
The Jewish Family Services Kosher Food Pantry reports that demand for free, nonperishable kosher food has grown three-fold since last summer.
“It’s certainly not true that Jewish people aren’t hungry in Maryland,” said Morris Horitz, who began volunteering at the pantry about a year ago after retiring from an international trade firm.
“Within months, I’ve noticed that we’re ordering and restocking more than usual. It’s picked up quite a bit,” he said.
In fact, the number of food bags distributed by the pantry has almost tripled since last summer.
The pantry gave out 384 bags in August, 459 bags in October and 815 bags in November. Distribution peaked in December, when more than 1,000 bags of kosher groceries were given away.
In the past few months, volunteers have packed and distributed a little more than 800 bags each month.
“The numbers of customers is holding steady for now, but we expect to hit around 900 soon,” said Carol Sandler, director of volunteer services at Jewish Family Services.
Pantry officials blame the boom in business partly on Jewish immigrants from Russia who have flocked to Baltimore in recent years.
“Jews who came from the former Soviet Union, may need some assistance, and just because they are poor doesn’t mean that they aren’t hungry and want kosher foods,” said Jan Thorman, chair of the social action committee at Temple Beth Shalom in Annapolis.
But Sandler said the pantry is also distributing more food because of welfare reform legislation. Clients are getting fewer food stamps and they just cannot make ends meet, Sandler said.
“Many people just need temporary assistance,” she said. “Sometimes they have to make the choice between paying rent and eating.”
The increase in clients is not unique to certain types of food pantries, said Beverly Bernschein, program chair for the Department of Human Services’ Emergency Food Services. Overall, there has been about a 15 percent increase in the numbers of people served by food pantries in the state, she said.
“The people’s money just isn’t lasting until the end of the month,” Bernschein said. “Where people used to stop by to make ends meet around the last week of the month, they need food for the last two weeks.”
Bernschein agrees that cutting welfare benefits has forced many of the working poor to try to feed their families through state pantries.
“Why should the Jewish community be any different?” she asked.
In fact, they are not, said Marcia Greenfield, volunteer coordinator of the kosher food pantry.
“Many people wrongly assume that Jewish people cannot be poor people,” said Greenfield, who is Jewish. “Every ethnic group has the full gamut of people from all economic areas. It goes across cultural and religious lines.
“When I talk to Jewish students, they are shocked to learn there are people in the community who are sometimes hungry for long periods. Hunger to these students is missing an ice cream or snack,” she said.
The people who come to the kosher food pantry are in need of more than a snack. The pantry helps the elderly, single-parent families with low incomes, individuals with chronic mental illness, unemployed adults and their families, homeless people and people with disabilities.
Sandler says that, unless they have a one-time emergency request, first-timers are interviewed to assess their needs. Some people get bags for a week, two weeks or a month.
At the pantry, boxes of kosher peas, fruits, and vegetables are stacked to the ceiling and 30-pound bags of rice and large boxes of corn flakes fill the hallway.
Frani Fink of Pikesville, who has been volunteering at the pantry since 1995, said each bag is packed so that the client can receive a nutritionally balanced meal.
“Organizing things is important, I just really take to it,” she said pointing to the endless rows of tomato sauce, canned fruits and vegetables. “If I’m able to help the community to any degree, I’m happy.”
The food bags, valued at $30 a bag, cost the pantry about $22 each. A bag may feed two people for a week, officials said.
The pantry’s is working on a $200,000 this year. Most of their funds come from donations of food and money from the community. The pantry also receives some funding from the federal government and a few supplementary grants from private groups.
They get little help from the Maryland Food Bank, which supplies more than 900 charitable non-profit organizations with food, because of the dietary laws governing the kosher food pantry.
“A good deal of our food is kosher, but most of it isn’t. We can’t control what we get in,” said Valerie Brown, agency relations manager at the food bank.
All nonkosher food donations are given to the St. Ambrose Outreach Center.
The kosher food pantry is at the offices of Jewish Family Services at 5750 Park Heights Ave. in Baltimore. For information about the pantry and for volunteer or donation opportunities, call Jewish Family Services at 410-466-9200, ext. 296.