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Pantries come up bare as economy worsens

| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

Bare shelves plus the holiday season and an economy in free fall is an equation making Alle-Kiski Valley food bank directors very nervous.

"We are experiencing more families in need," said Kathy Otterbeck, director of the Lower Valley Food Bank in Springdale. "It has to do with the economy and it has to do with the holidays.

"To give you an idea of how it is going up, we have gone up at least eight to 10 families a month, since September."

Capt. Elvie Carter is commander of the Salvation Army chapters in New Kensington and Vandergrift, both of which operate food pantries. The one in Vandergrift serves all of the Kiski Valley. He said both are already out of food for the regular November distribution and are getting calls from other pantries looking for additional food supplies.

"Certain things are happening, but certain things are not happening," Carter said. "Gas is going down, but bread and butter is not."

"We are concerned," Carter said. "Our greatest concern is that we may run short, that the demand is going to be greater than the supply.

"We are led to believe that, unless things improve in the economy, it is going to be very, very difficult to meet the requests. We're not panicked but we are concerned."

Most of the food bank directors around the Alle-Kiski Valley have experienced increases in demand and are anticipating more as the economy slides toward a recession. It is a dual-edged dilemma with demand growing on one side while on the other side donations have declined and food costs have risen.

That is exactly the scenario described by Karen Snair, director of the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches, which has a food bank serving Harrison, Brackenridge, Tarentum, Fawn, Frazer, East Deer and part of West Deer.

"With the current economic climate, the need for services has risen and the donations have declined," she said. "Even with what we are able to get from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, it's still not enough. Because the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank is hurting, they have less to distribute to us."

Which leads local food banks to issue pleas to the community to fill in the breach in the supply chain. Fortunately, organizations such as churches, the Lions and Rotary clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, along with businesses and individual donors, always seem to come through.

"I always thought that it would be so easy to feed people if the churches would just get parishioners to bring in one can of food for a week," said John Dick, who with his wife Judy, operates their own food bank out of the Rosedale United Methodist Church in the Rosedale neighborhood along the Verona-Penn Hills border.

"It just comes," he said of the food. "I'm a faith-based guy and its amazing what God does for me."

"We've been very blessed that way -- between churches and businesses who have done food drives for us," Snair said. "They are really what keeps us going and keeps food on the shelves to distribute to families every month."

That is true of other food banks as well.

"If we are running a little low on some things, I put a little notice in our church bulletin and people usually bring it in," said Bonnie DeLancey, director of the food bank at the United Presbyterian Church along Fifth Avenue in New Kensington.

"Our shelves aren't plentiful," DeLancey said. "We're hoping that we can get some of the organizations like the Scouts, who have helped us tremendously, to give us some help.

"I haven't notice the food going as quickly as it has this year. It (pantry) hasn't been full like it usually is."

She said in the past three months, the number of families the food bank serves has grown from 108 families to 120.

"Every month we sign up new clients and, of course, we are not the only one in the area either," DeLancey said. "I can only imagine how many people are in need."

The Rev. Lisa Lyons of the Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Leechburg said the Leechburg Food Bank, which is operated by the town's churches, has had a steady number of clients, usually about 105 families. However, food bank officials are bracing for a possible increase due to the sudden closing of Kensington Windows in Parks Township a few weeks ago. More than 100 people lost their jobs in the shutdown.

Lyons is aware of the stigma that some people attach to those seeking help from food banks and said that is wrong.

"They've never been in that position," Lyons said. "They can't possibly know what it is like until they have been in that position.

"Our distribution is based on income and I think, if the general public knew how much they took in in a month, they would really be shocked at how little it is."

Many of the food bank clients are not unemployed or are welfare recipients, the food bank directors said.

"We have an awful lot of retired folks. Social Security just doesn't cover it for them," Lyons said. "We also have working poor."

"We get a lot of working poor. They work, but they don't make enough," said Dick, a retired computer processor for Mellon Bank.

Dick said about 500 families are on the food bank's rolls from Verona, Oakmont, parts of Penn Hills and Plum, but the actual number seeking help at the food bank's bimonthly distribution is around 300.

Most of the food banks depend on the KDKA Turkey Fund to provide gift certificates so their clients can purchase turkeys at Thanksgiving. However, sometimes that is not enough.

"We got just a little over 200 and we need well over 400 more," Snair said. "We have to purchase the rest of those. It just depends on what they (KDKA) get as to what they can distribute.

"We've never gotten 100 percent but this year it seems down more than usual."

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