The invisible hungry - their numbers grow

All morning on a warm October Saturday, a food pantry in the basement of St. John's United Methodist Church has been buzzing with activity. Husbands and wives, mothers and children, a grandmother and granddaughter, and clusters of older women wait their turn for a shopping cart. Then they thread their way along neatly - if sometimes sparsely - stacked shelves, filling a few bags with basic foods: cereal, soup, bread, tuna, mayonnaise.

By 10 a.m., seven new families have added their names to the list. "We're going to be here a long time," says D. Aldous Claffey, co-president of the Dedham Food Pantry. "We're not going to close on time today."

It is a scene familiar to those who run food pantries. As the economy slows and layoffs increase, more people with low incomes or no incomes must depend on the kindness of strangers for food. Half of those Ms. Claffey serves are retirees on fixed incomes.

Here in eastern Massachusetts, demand at food pantries has gone up 20 percent since Sept. 11, says Catherine D'Amato, president of The Food Bank in Boston. Yet supplies of food are not keeping pace in some areas.

"Because of a surge in philanthropy to aid people affected by the terrorist attacks, food banks around the country are emptying out," says Susan Hofer of Second Harvest in Chicago.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 31 million Americans are "food insecure," Ms. Hofer says. Because of economic situations in their lives, she explains, "they don't know if they are going to be able to put food on the table."

Last week Share Our Strength, a hunger-relief organization in Washington, conducted a "flash survey" of food banks nationwide. Many reported significant losses in revenue and equally significant increases in demand from clients.

At the Community Food Bank in Tucson, Ariz., cash donations are down 20 percent from last year. Requests for food have increased 25 percent. Requests for infant food boxes have doubled since last year. Bill Shore, president of Share Our Strength, calls children "the fastest-growing segment" of people who suffer from hunger.

"There's an impression right now that Americans are being much more generous than they ever have before," Mr. Shore says. "It's very inspiring." But, he cautions, unless people also give to community hunger agencies, those local agencies could face a long winter. "I think it'll be a tough Thanksgiving,'' Ms. D'Amato says.

At the Dedham Food Pantry, a mother named Alisa explains that her job as a paraprofessional teacher does not pay enough to support her family. Pointing to her 7-year-old son, she says, "He's hungry."

Another couple, Ron and Sue, began coming here when he was unemployed for four months. Now he is working again, and their eligibility will soon end. "We're getting some ketchup while we catch up," Ron says with a laugh, pleased at his own impromptu play on words.

To those who can afford to shop at supermarkets, food banks remain largely invisible. Yet for those who, like Old Mother Hubbard, face the prospect of a bare cupboard, these food outlets, tucked away in churches and warehouses, remain an essential part of a caring community.

Even in the midst of war, Shore says, political leaders must draw attention to domestic issues "with the same intensity and focus that they are mobilizing around international issues." He adds, "The generosity Americans have demonstrated since Sept. 11 shows we can solve these issues if we put our minds to it."

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