For weeks now, while the national news reported fear and worry among Wall Street financial titans, a working mother of four named Darcy Fox was trying to stretch out her family’s Ramen noodles and canned goods until her next trip to a charity food pantry.
“Thank God for food pantries,” she said on Monday, holding her infant son.
But all over Wichita, while recent news has been dominated by worries from Wall Street, the leaders of Wichita’s food charities have watched with growing fear as the number of people showing up for meals and food has set records.
“We’re scared, to be quite honest with you,” said Brian Walker, the director of the Kansas Food Bank. “We’ve never encountered numbers like what we are seeing, and we’re having trouble sometimes putting together enough in the boxes to make full meals.”
Months of high gasoline and food prices have driven many marginally surviving families to the soup kitchens, charities say. The full effect of the financial crises, as it plays out, might make this worse, they say.
The Food Bank, which serves as a bulk supplier to pantries in 85 Kansas counties, including Sedgwick, handed out a million pounds more food to its pantries from January to September than it did in the same period last year. And last year was a record year until now.
The Lord’s Diner, which feeds dinners seven days a week to hundreds of poor, set a record for meals served in one month last year when it handed out an average of 438 meals a night in September 2007.
But in June, July, August and September this year, the Diner’s average nightly meal numbers were 436, 419, 451 and 449.
“I’m very nervous,” said Wendy Glick, the director. “We are now serving as many as 500 meals a night on many nights now.”
Episcopal Services, which a month ago was serving 45 to 50 poor people at lunchtime, is now serving 80 to 100 every day.
Catholic Charities has seen it’s numbers jump 11 percent this year.
The charity leaders say one of the more sobering sights these days are the working people they see come in the doors.
Fox, 38, from Haysville, works as a machine attendant at a Wichita factory manufacturing plastic car parts and earns about $1,315 monthly. Her husband, Franklin, 50, also a factory worker, has looked for work for months.
“I’ve never been one to want handouts, and I know there are a few people who try to screw the system and take food they don’t need,” Fox said. “But there are times when we just can’t get by without this help. There are a lot of working families needing help these days.”
The charity workers also say their donors, many of whom lost considerable savings in the Wall Street debacle, have cut back on donations.
At the United Methodist Open Door food ministry in downtown Wichita, where the Foxes showed up holding their infant son Monday, the number of hungry people seeking a monthly box of food has shot up by the thousands. Open Door fed 7,514 people in September, 2,000 more than it did in September last year.
These are the poor hungry, said Donna Volz, who runs that program; but what’s especially worrisome to her is that many of the donors of food and money to Open Door are fixed-income people who have seen their savings eroded.
“We’ve had to cut what we put in the box a bit,” Volz said, speaking about the boxes of food they hand to the poor.
The Lord’s Diner has done the same, changing its menus because it sometimes doesn’t have enough donated ingredients to make complete meals.
Walker, who’s agency supplies tons of food every month to pantries all over Kansas, said Food Bank donors have cut back on everything.
“Some of the shipments we get, you can’t make a meal out of it,” Walker said. “We collect enough fruit juice to hand out, for example, but you can’t make a meal out of fruit juice. We’re coming up short sometimes with some of what we need.”
At the Bread of Life food pantry on South Hillside, volunteers were startled five years ago to see as many as 800 to 1,000 people come through their lines in one week to pick up Thanksgiving meals.
The pantry has now seen 800 to 1,000 people every week for the past four months, said Donna Pinaire, the pantry director. Many are from working families, an observation made by all the charities recently.
“And lately, besides the working families, we’re starting to see more single men coming in here who obviously have jobs; they come in wearing work clothes,” Glick said.
“People from many walks of life are coming in here now.”
Fox said she and her husband keep the children fed by not only taking pantry food from the Bread of Life and Open Door but by juggling and delaying payments on bills. “I’m behind on rent, electric, gas, and sometimes water bills,” she said. “I have to decide month to month whether I should give up my vehicle, or whether we can be evicted. I no longer worry about embarrassment. When we need help, we get it.
“Whenever you can get a job, you should be thankful for it,” she said. Roy Wenzl