NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jennifer Bingham earned $7.50 an hour packing boxes for a jewelry company, but after a short illness she was fired and had to seek help at a food pantry and women’s shelter.
“I never expected to get sick,” said Bingham, 51, who had no savings.
Bingham is not alone. The economic downturn triggered by the worst financial crisis in decades is sending more Americans to food banks. But the crisis has also cut donations from companies and individuals, according to a survey for Feeding America, the largest U.S. relief organization.
“We’re seeing more and more people coming to the front door and less and less food coming through the back door,” said Aine Duggan of the Food Bank for New York City. “We’re being squeezed from both sides and we haven’t seen the worst of it.”
U.S. jobless claims climbed to a 7-year high of over 500,000 last week, the Labor Department reported, and many of the newly unemployed are showing up at food banks.
Feeding America, which has more than 200 member food banks, said that almost all have reported an increase in the number of people they serve from a year ago and 80 percent cannot adequately meet the demand.
Al Brislain, who runs a food bank in Fort Myers, Florida, said the number of his clients has shot up 82 percent in the past two years as construction, the region’s primary employer, almost ground to a halt.
“We are distributing more but we just can’t keep up,” he said.
An increasing number of people showing up at food banks are middle class, Brislain said.
“The new face of hunger is middle-class people. Working people,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, director of Island Harvest, a food bank and food rescue organization.
For some, it is the first time they need help.
“We’re getting a lot of first-time callers — people who are used to paying their mortgage, used to working, used to paying their rent and all of a sudden have lost their jobs or have been faced with increased housing costs,” said Anne Wrotniewski, of the Catholic Charities/Brownson House in East Los Angeles.
“They’re completely unfamiliar with the social services arena. They’re ashamed,” she said.
With so many new demands, food banks are looking for ways to stretch their budgets.
Stop & Shop Supermarket Company, which donates to food banks in the northeastern states, has seen a 15 percent increase in requests for contributions. It has assigned experts to help them stretch energy and printing dollars, said company spokeswoman Faith Weiner.
Food banks must also reach people who need food but are ashamed to go to a pantry.
The Community Kitchen in Harlem serves “take-out” dinners and Long Island Cares food bank is considering a mobile pantry.
“For some people it’s very difficult to go to a pantry — it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Paule Pachter, director of the Long Island Cares food bank.
Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Anthony Boadle