Food Banks Experience Unprecedented Demand

Watsonville, CA – A line of people had already formed as the Second Harvest Food Bank truck pulled into the parking lot outside a Watsonville elementary school. Teresa Moran has been in charge of food distribution at this and 48 other Santa Cruz County sites for two years. She said the lines keep growing. "When I came at this site, we only had 25 people. Now we have 95 bags today," said Moran.

Those bags are filled with dry beans, rice, canned meat and fresh produce. The Food for Children Program aims to give Santa Cruz County parents the supplies and education to feed their kids healthy meals. On this day as parents picked up this month's food, Moran served small plates of fresh vegetables. She told parents if they cut up fruits and vegetables and leave them out, their kids will eat more.

Raymond Terry has been coming to this pick-up spot ever since an on the job injury put an end to his cleaning business two years ago. Now he runs a non-profit counseling service. Despite having an income, he said he and his daughter couldn't get by without this monthly bag of food. "No I couldn't because I'm low income and it is much needed. I'm glad that they do this. I wish they did more, but it is much appreciated too. Not only by me, but by all the parents," said Terry.

Like food banks across the state, demand on Second Harvest has been unprecedented while financial donations have stayed the same. So the food bank is doing more without more money. "We're dealing with a 60% increase in customers, if you will, and so we haven't reduced headcount but everybody's working 60% harder," said Executive Director Willy Elliot-McCrea. "One of the things that we've had to do is, in the past, we were able to provide 13 pounds of food for folks that need food assistance. It's 10 pounds. We've had to stretch things a little thinner." Of all its programs, the one hit hardest by the recession has been Food for Children. Elliot-McCrea said since 2008 demand has more than doubled. It's gone from serving 3000 kids a month to more than 8000. "People say it's going to be really years before we dig out. And some parts of the economy are coming back but in terms of employment it's a long hard row ahead," he added.

Nonprofits like the food bank may be the last to feel effects of an economy turning the corner. Joy Rubey worked in nonprofit for 25 years and now lectures in nonprofit management at CSU Monterey Bay. "Donations to non-profit organizations by individuals are typically discretionary dollars. And when a family has lost income, once that income stream is restored, they may have to use some of that money to buy the things they didn't buy when things were tight. And so their discretionary income for charitable purposes may drop off." Rubey believes there's an emotional factor too. If people aren't sure that were out of a recession they may be less likely to give and less likely to give up assistance.

At the Food for Children distribution site in Watsonville, Moran and her team gave away the 95 bags of food, plus twenty extra they brought as back up. They also had to turn a couple families away. "She'll go back to the office and she'll write down that we need an extra 22 bags. It's definitely getting hard," said Moran. Next month, they'll bring the added bags plus another twenty extra. Moran said if there's one thing they never want to do, it's turn people away.