Newly Poor Swell Lines at Food Banks
“These are people who never really had to ask for help before,” said Brenda Beavers, human services director for the Salvation Army in New Jersey, which dispenses emergency food supplies at 30 pantries throughout the state. “They were once givers and now they’re having to ask for assistance.”
In Morristown, Ms. Gilmartin, who started volunteering at the Interfaith pantry 13 years ago, has watched a stream of new faces pushing shopping carts among the cardboard boxes on metal shelves in a former nursing home. In 2008, the pantry gave away 620,000 pounds of food, a 24 percent increase from 2007; in November, December and January it had a 24 percent increase in customers and a 45 percent increase in food distributed, compared with the same period the previous year.
Along with fresh apples and Nature’s Path Organic Soy Plus cereal, Ms. Gilmartin gives children “Dora the Explorer” books. In the past few months, she has found herself fielding more inquiries about social service programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit from people who clearly had never before hovered this close to the poverty line.
“They look shellshocked,” she said. “I’ve had people walk back out and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
She recalled one recent visitor, a television sound engineer who lost his house to foreclosure. “His life just went reee-eeer,” Ms. Gilmartin said, twirling her finger in a downward circle.
Usually, the pantry distributes food at two sites several mornings a week, including most Saturdays, and on the first and third Wednesday evenings of each month. But this month, Ms. Gilmartin decided to also open on the second Wednesday because she has been having trouble accommodating everyone.
By 5:30 p.m. on that Wednesday, a half-hour before the pantry was to open, a line of nearly two dozen had formed. Once inside, people were escorted individually through the shelves of low-fat mozzarella cheese, dried beans and Pepperidge Farm chocolate chunk cookies, where a few paused — often reluctantly — to explain what had brought them.