WALTHAM, MASS. — Karen was determined this year to provide her four children with the usual Thanksgiving fare - drumsticks, stuffing, dollops of potatoes. The only trouble is, she couldn't afford it.
Her ex-husband recently lost his job, and while she earns $1,500 a month as a bus driver, her paychecks vanish quickly with car payments, heating bills, and clothes for the kids. So, under a late-autumn cobalt sky, Karen finds herself standing in line recently at a Red Cross food giveaway in this town west of Boston. "We eat a lot of pasta and a lot of hot dogs," says Karen (who didn't want her last name used) in a thick Boston accent.
Karen's plight is becoming disturbingly familiar this holiday season as the economic downturn begins to squeeze many low-income and even some middle-class families.
From Florida to California, soup kitchens and food banks are seeing a sharp increase in demand for basic foodstuffs. Many of the people showing up have been recently laid off and are first-time visitors.
At the same time, some charities are finding their donations are down, both because of the economy and the large number of contributions going to Sept. 11 relief efforts.
"It's scary," says Mary Hayes, assistant director of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. "We've been in existence for 18 years, and I think this is the worst we've seen since way back in the '80s."
Across the country, the evidence is sobering:
In central Florida, demand at food agencies has gone up anywhere from 40 percent to 140 percent.
Half of the 100 emergency food agencies served by the San Francisco Food Bank have seen a client increase in the past month, especially among laid-off restaurant and hotel workers. At the same time, food donations are down 40 percent from a year ago.
In New York, more than 64 percent of the people using soup kitchens, food pantries, or shelters since Sept. 11 have never used emergency food assistance before, according to a survey of 1,200 such programs by Food For Survival Inc.
Food pantries frequently serve as a warning light on the economy's engine, because their clients are often the working poor - families struggling to make a small paycheck stretch to cover rent, utilities, hospital bills, and car payments. The Rev. Don Heath, a Roman Catholic priest who works at an Attleboro, Mass., food pantry, calls it the "heating or eating" syndrome. "You either heat [your home] or you eat," he says, "and the statistics are horrible for the number of people who go without meals."
A survey of 24,000 local food agencies across the US, released last week by America's Second Harvest in Chicago, showed that nearly 39 percent of households seeking emergency food have at least one adult working.
Food banks also emphasize that, while the demand has significantly increased since Sept. 11, the situation was already discouraging. The study done by America's Second Harvest showed a nine percent increase in the number of people (23.3 million a year) served by its network of food banks from 1997 to 2001. Between 56 and 60 percent of local agencies reported an increase in demand.
"When you look at having conducted these interviews when the economic expansion was still going full-out, and we still had more people turning to hunger relief charities than four years earlier - that's very concerning," says Martha Pickett, chief operating officer.
Ms. Pickett and others say they can't totally explain this trend, but attribute at least some of it to effects associated with welfare reform. Only 30 percent of emergency-food recipients receive food stamps, for instance, although many more are eligible. "When you're on welfare, your caseworker is going to make sure you have food stamps," says Sheila Zedlewski, director of the income and benefits policy center at the Urban Institute in Washington. "When you leave welfare, you're like other poor families: You have to do it on your own."
And many are finding that they can't quite make it on their own. "One in 10 of our neighbors requires food assistance on a normal day in central Florida," says Kathy Murphy of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. "When you couple that with 88,000 people affected [since Sept. 11 by layoffs or shortened work hours] I'm not sure where that's going to leave us."
Not all agencies are feeling the lack of donations, although most say there's significant uncertainty as they head into the holiday season. Pickett says that many donors mention that they gave to Sept. 11 relief efforts, but want to give to their community as well.
"When you analyze what happens in times of crisis, there may be a kind of pulling together where Americans give more generously," says Eugene Tempel, director of the Center on Philanthropy at the University of Indiana.
But, he adds, individuals' increased generosity can't make up for the fact that corporations and foundations, often responsible for the largest donations, typically give a fixed percentage of their profits. This year, those have plummeted. In addition, many corporations focused their giving on New York. "The tragedy in New York has been given so much attention that it's distracted people from local needs," Dr. Tempel says.
That's been the case at Working Persons' Food Pantry in Attleboro. Last year, it distributed 47,000 pounds of food. This year, it passed out 78,000 pounds just through October, and the number of people served has tripled. "Lately I've been beating my head against a wall," says Father Heath. When he asks for donations, "people respond: 'I gave to New York.' "
Every bit of food aid helps, says Joyce, a soft-spoken elderly woman who visits the Red Cross pantry in Waltham once a month. She lives off of her $395-a-month Social Security check. Housing uses up one-third of that, and Joyce has a hard time stretching the rest to pay utility and medical bills.
A lot of women at her senior-citizen housing complex face the same predicament, she says. "Our income stays static, and then the doctor bills come up."