WASHINGTON – Maryland food banks said they are having to push for donations this year, at a time of year when giving used to be second nature.
“It’s getting tougher out here,” said Maurice Weaver, spokesman for America’s Second Harvest. “We’ve been beating the drum all year. Hunger is growing fast.”
Bill Ewing of the Maryland Food Bank said a survey showed that 86 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in the state have seen an increase in requests this year, with some distributors asking for a 50 percent increase or more over last year. Ewing attributed the spike to the slumping economy and recent drought.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that people will need help,” Ewing said. “They (food pantries) are like squirrels stocking up for the winter and are really stocking up.”
Demand from pantries is up because demand from needy families is up. Bob Hobbs, president of the South County Assistance Network in Lothian, said that the number of people who come in to the food bank shot up 30 percent in two years to 120 clients each month.
“We’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an excess of food. It doesn’t take many weeks for lots of stuff to have dwindled off our shelves and with the increased need, they’re dwindling even quicker,” he said.
And because donations have not kept up with the spike in requests, food banks are feeling the crunch.
Weaver and others said it is harder for people to donate because they are worried about feeding their own families.
His Chicago-based organization has been criss-crossing the nation, promoting food donations, a drive that usually does not begin until January and continues into summer.
Others said the lack of donations seems to come from a lack of awareness. Sister Carol Czyzewski of St. Anthony’s parish in Emmitsburg said she thinks fewer people are aware that hunger is a problem this year.
“There’s always something being donated, but unless we alert the parishioners of a crisis, we get less,” Czyzewski said. “Food need is going to be there all the time, but the awareness isn’t. People just don’t realize the huge population of poor in the area.”
Weaver agreed, citing the growing number of working-class families that need assistance as a reason why “hunger is hidden.”
“It’s not like you turn on your television screen and there it is,” Weaver said. “There are neighbors missing their meals during the holiday season. Even people with jobs have a daily struggle that can really change a family’s fortune from working to working poor.”
With Maryland facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, advocates said they expect government assistance will take the first hit.
“They’re coming in with a budget ax and, regrettably, social programs that transition people from welfare to work go on the chopping block,” Weaver said. “It’s a pretty gloomy picture.”
Marilyn Hunter, chairwoman of the Maryland State Advisory Council on Hunger, said cuts are expected next year because assistance funding comes from a “flexible” part of the budget.
“If cuts have to be made, they’ll be made here. This is the part of the budget that is not set in stone,” Hunter said. “The ones that don’t have a loud voice are the ones who get cut. Hunger is an invisible thing. People don’t know about it.”
Ewing said the drought has also played a part, as lawmakers have shifted funds from food bank programs into direct aid for farmers.
“We in turn are alarmed because we have little control over what we get,” Ewing said. “We rely on food drives and the community to donate.”
Weaver said that promoting donations would help, but ultimately a healthy economy would make it easier for people to donate and cut down on the number of people who need assistance.
“Hunger is a 365-day-a-year problem. Hunger is solvable in this country,” Weaver said.
“We have the resources, the outlets, the faith-based organizations and the distributors,” he said. “We just have to bring everyone together and say we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.”