Economic Woes Hit Nation's Food Pantries Hard

CEO Karen Haren stands in an empty warehouse run by Harvesters, a community food network. i i

CEO Karen Haren stands in an empty warehouse run by Harvesters, which supplies to food to pantries in places such as Kansas City, Kan. Frank Morris for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Morris for NPR
CEO Karen Haren stands in an empty warehouse run by Harvesters, a community food network.

CEO Karen Haren stands in an empty warehouse run by Harvesters, which supplies to food to pantries in places such as Kansas City, Kan.

Frank Morris for NPR

The troubled U.S. economy is forcing tens of thousands of people to visit food pantries for the first time. But as the demand rises, donations to those pantries are drying up and some places have run out of food entirely, even in the nation's breadbasket.

Although Kansas' Johnson County is one of the richer counties in the United States, a food pantry there run by the local Catholic Diocese had to close last week.

Ellen Jones, director of Catholic Community Services, says she was stunned.

"I'm not talking about an empty space here or there; the whole shelf was empty. I have never seen that before," she said.

An influx of donations revived the pantry, but Jones says she can't be sure for how long. Demand for free food here has spiked 50 percent from last year. Donations, meanwhile, have slowed to a trickle.

"The people who donate to us are feeling the crunch. Even here in Johnson County, that was happening," Jones said.

The crunch is even more acute in the heart of Kansas City.

On a recent morning at the Metro Lutheran Ministries pantry, dozens of people were lined up in the cold and rain to get food. Greg Bryant, an unemployed computer programmer, stuffed canned fruit and expired English muffins into his wet gym bag.

"Right now, it's real important," Bryant said. "I hope things will change and I'll be working, but right now it's real important."

There were only two days' worth of food left at the pantry that day. Faye Cowee, who runs the pantry, says new people come in every day but food donations have plummeted 90 percent.

"It used to come here in pickup-truck loads. Now we're lucky to get a grocery cart full," Cowee said.

A lot of food that Cowee gets these days comes from a cavernous warehouse run by Harvesters, a community food network. Most of the food coming into the warehouse can't be sold because it's mispackaged, damaged or nearly expired merchandise directly from the food industry. Harvesters used to keep the place packed.

But Karen Haren, CEO of Harvesters, says the sour economy has forced stores and producers to clamp down on waste. So she is seeking individual donations more aggressively.

"We're putting a barrel everywhere in this community we can possibly put a barrel to collect food," Haren says. "It's a big gap. We're scrambling."

Congress approved a boost in emergency food aid this year that should help ease the gap. Back in Johnson County, however, pantry director Jones sees help coming from just a couple of doors away.

"The thrift store, that's kind of our heartbeat," she says. "We do the work here and they pump the blood there."

A stone's throw from the quiet pantry, Catholic Diocese's thrift store is jumping. Its profits support the pantry and other charities, and sales are through the roof. Up to 30 secondhand shops around the country have reported similar increases, as sales tank at stores such as the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

For Anita McGuire, who's buying a sweater for her daughter in college, thrift-store shopping is a new experience.

"Well, my husband actually just found a new job, but he was laid off for eight months. And he'd been with the same company for 30 years," McGuire said. "So we did have a very hard eight months. And he's re-employed, but we're making a lot less in our salary, so I thought I'd start shopping at these more."

Before she leaves the store, McGuire picks up a "loyal customer card" and makes double sure it's stamped. Like legions of Americans caught in the downturn, McGuire will likely weather the crisis searching shops like this one for something new to wear.

Thousands of others may spend it stalking picked-over pantries for something to eat.

Frank Morris reports for member station KCUR.

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