Helen Hoefer can sum up the pace of her business in one word: “Booming”.
That’s not good news. Hoefer runs the food pantry and other emergency services for Catholic Charities of Oswego County. “Our numbers are up about 33% and I think it’s going to get a lot worse,” she said.
There are approximately 20 food pantries across the county. We spoke with officials at three of them, and the story is the same. More people need more help than ever, as unemployment hovers around 10% and another 6-7% are working, but not making enough to pay the bills.
Hannibal’s community food pantry, run by Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, provided Thanksgiving dinners for 207 families this year, up from 168 families last Thanksgiving, according to Liz Cummins, who is the director of the church’s Resource Center.
More than 2,200 people have gotten food from the church’s food pantry so far this year. While that number is a little below last year’s food pantry usage, Cummins says the need for help has definitely increased this year.
It’s not just the unemployed, she said. It’s also the underemployed. “Everybody comes here, even if they have jobs, because nobody’s making enough money,” she said.
New Faces, New Stories
Capt. Kevin Brennan is seeing many new faces at the food pantry he runs at the Fulton Salvation Army. The group also runs a soup kitchen that serves breakfast and lunch each weekday. Last Wednesday, he said, people had to sit on freezers because all of the chairs were taken. The soup kitchen serves 80-120 people a day, twice as many people as it served last year.
The food bank, like most in the county, is allied with the Food Bank of Central New York and receives most of its pantry food from the non-profit agency. A truckload, said Brennan, “used to last 6 weeks. Now it lasts 2-3 weeks. It almost goes out as fast as it comes in.”
“We’ve had people — and this breaks my heart — if we give them meat, they give it back. Their refrigerator’s broke and they can’t keep it,” he said.
Hoefer’s program at Catholic Charities tries to get help for people whose refrigerators or stoves have broken. A state program called EmpowerNY can help in some cases, and she said there are other sources of aid.
The other surprise: People who used to donate are now coming in for help. Hoefer said those people have a hard time. “People who aren’t used to the system don’t know how to navigate it,” she said. “We tell people, ‘Go to DSS’ and they ask us, “What is DSS?'”
Giving is not always keeping pace with the exploding need.
The Fulton Salvation Army is already $6,000 behind in its annual Red Kettle fund drive, due in part to the closing of the P&C Food Market, one of its prime fundraising spots. Brennan said that volunteers working two shifts at Walmart in Granby didn’t make up for the loss.
Cummins suggested that those who want to give can do the most by giving either money or gift cards, so staff can shop for the best bargains. Donations of non-pereishable food are always welcome, all of the food bank leaders said.
Hoefer said her agency is shopping differently, trying to take advantage of whateveer free food is available.
Find a Pantry Near You
Below is a list, taken from a list compiled by Oswego County Opportunities, of food pantries that are members of the county Food Pantry Association. There may be other food pantries.
Click the graphic to see a larger version: