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Demand on pantries grows as food costs rise, jobs lost

| Saturday, Oct. 4, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Demand for food assistance at the Hazelwood Outreach Center has tripled over the past three months, spurring executives from the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh to leave their Downtown offices Friday to help renovate the busy food pantry.

The CEO and several vice presidents worked alongside staff and volunteers to paint, build shelves, install lights and ceiling tiles, and reorganize thousands of cans, boxes and bags for easy packing.

As they did so, people from the neighborhood trickled through to pick up bagged lunches and canned goods, hoping for some small assistance as the cost of basic needs rises out of reach for many.

"Food's gotten so expensive, it really has ... but you've got to eat," said Cindy Franceschini, 47, a first-time client from Hazelwood applying for emergency food supplies. "There's been such a lack of jobs out there. I've got 12 applications out, and still no response."

The rising cost of gas, food and utilities has combined with stagnant wages and declining employment to push up demand at many organizations offering services to the poor, said Iris Valanti, spokeswoman for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which helps distribute food donations to smaller soup kitchens and food pantries around the region.

The Food Bank logged 11,737 new households signing up for service in 2007, and 7,868 more between January and July this year, Valanti said. More than 1,100 signed up in July alone, and with increased heating costs looming, Valanti said she expects to easily surpass last year's total.

At the beginning of summer, five or six people a day sought free meals prepared at the Hazelwood Y, said Executive Director Tendai Mtambandzo. By last week, the tiny kitchen was serving 35 people a day, he said.

The food pantry the executives renovated is giving out canned goods and dried pasta to 158 households every third Thursday, with 25 new applicants each month, he said.

Larue Davis, who has worked as a maintenance man and jack-of-all-trades at the Hazelwood Y for three years, said he notices a change in the ages of clientele.

"This area was catering to people aged 60 to 65, but now it's really dropped. Now the average age is in the 20s or 30s," said Davis, 49. "For a lot of these people, this is the only guaranteed meal they have."

Nancy Palmieri, picking up her lunch at Hazelwood, said her gas and electric bills got too high to pay. She and Franceschini warmed themselves with a backyard fire yesterday morning before walking through the chilly rain to the Y, she said.

At the Jubilee Soup Kitchen in the Hill District, Sister Ligouri Rossner said more customers sought free meals or emergency help over the summer, especially in September.

"When you have five weeks in a month, that's when it gets really bad. ... Food stamps only last three weeks," she said. "There's usually a gradual increase: The beginning is slow, and by the 12th it's packed; but in September it was busy from the beginning."

A 2007 study by the Food Bank indicated that thousands of people living below the poverty line in the Pittsburgh region went unserved by food programs, particularly in Duquesne, Bloomfield and Garfield.

"We could do this all day, every day, and there would still be families suffering," said YMCA President and CEO Eric Mann.

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