MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The troubled economy is driving people into food pantries, people who have never used them before. At the same time, donations to food pantries are drying up. Some have run out of food entirely. But while the hard times have not been good for food pantries, they're doing great things for another service that caters to the poor: thrift stores. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.
FRANK MORRIS: Johnson County, Kansas, in the Kansas City suburbs, is one of the richer counties in the nation. But a food pantry here, run by the local Catholic Diocese, shut down earlier this month. Ellen Jones, who runs it, was stunned.
Ms. ELLEN JONES (Director, Catholic Community Services, Kansas): I mean, the shelves were empty. And I'm not talking of just empty space here and there. The whole shelf was empty. I have never seen that before.
MORRIS: An influx of groceries revived the pantry, but Jones can't be sure how long it will hang on. Demand for free food in this wealthy suburb spiked 50 percent last year. Donations, meantime, have dropped to a trickle.
Ms. JONES: The people that donate to us are also feeling the crunch, even here in Johnson County.
MORRIS: The crunch is even more acute in the heart of Kansas City. It's raining and cold first thing in the morning at Metro Lutheran Ministries pantry. Dozens of people are lined up for food. Greg Bryant, an unemployed computer programmer, was stuffing canned fruit and expired English muffins into his wet gym bag.
Mr. GREG BRYANT (Unemployed Computer Programmer): Right now, it's real important. And I hope I will be working and things will change, but right now it's real important.
MORRIS: Important but tenuous. There's only two days' worth of food left here today. Faye Cowee, who runs this place, says while new people come in every day, food donations have plummeted by 90 percent.
Ms. FAYE COWEE (Owner, Metro Lutheran Ministries Pantry): It used to come here in pickup trucks-full. Now, we're lucky to get a grocery cartful.
(Soundbite of a truck horn)
MORRIS: A lot of the food Cowee does get these days comes from this cavernous warehouse run by the community food network Harvesters. Most of the food coming in here can't be sold. It's mispackaged, damaged or nearly expired merchandise. It comes directly from the food industry, which used to keep this place packed. But Karen Haren, who runs Harvesters, says the sour economy has forced stores and producers to clamp down on waste. So she's going after individual donations more aggressively.
Ms. KAREN HAREN (CEO, Harvesters): We're putting a barrel everywhere in this community we can possibly put a barrel to collect food. It's a big gap. We're scrambling.
MORRIS: The federal government will help. Congress approved a boost in emergency food aid this year that should ease the gap. But back in Johnson County, pantry director Ellen Jones sees help coming from just a couple of doors away.
Ms. JONES: The thrift store, that's kind of our heartbeat. We do the work here, and they pump the blood there.
MORRIS: A stone's throw from the quiet pantry, the Catholic Diocese's thrift store is jumping. Profits here support the pantry and other charities, and sales are through the roof, up 30 percent. Secondhand shops around the country report similar numbers even as sales at places like the Gap and Abercrombie tank. For Anita McGuire, who's buying a sweater for her daughter in college, shopping in a thrift store is a new experience.
Ms. ANITA MCGUIRE: 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. 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.
MORRIS: Before leaving the store, McGuire picks up a loyal customer card and makes double sure it's stamped. Like growing legions of Americans caught in the downturn, McGuire will likely weather it searching shops like this one for something new to wear. Thousands of others may spend it stalking picked-over pantries for something to eat. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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