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December 2, 2008
Hunger has a New Face

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some of the people coming through the door have never needed to ask for help before.

But with a tough economic climate and winter on the way, new faces are showing up at area food banks this holiday season, said Connie Granbois, manager of the Community Action Partnership Food Bank in Lewiston.

"We are seeing a new hungry, people that have never used a food bank before. They were doing OK, but now with the higher cost of food and utilities, they find themselves struggling. People have lost their jobs due to cutbacks or places closing their doors. There are many reasons why people need assistance with their groceries."

At the same time, donations have taken a dip, she said. People are still making charitable contributions, but unemployment and other financial factors have taken a toll on giving in this region.

Chuck Whitman, director of the Idaho Foodbank in the north central Idaho area, said in places like Kooskia, Orofino and Kamiah, there is a direct relation between recent layoffs and the increasing requests for help.

"The energy spike and slumping housing market affects mills, loggers, truckers, stores and everything else, especially in the smaller communities where a mill is the largest employer. The need is skyrocketing."

He estimates donations have dropped about 20 percent this fall. One of the biggest losses is in corporate gifts, Whitman said.

"Businesses are usually our big financial donors, and it's not going to happen this year. They're just like everyone else. They're trying to make payroll for their employees."

Area food bank managers report more families are signing up for emergency food boxes, and the requests for holiday food baskets have risen throughout north central Idaho and southeastern Washington. 

Whitman said when he travels around the area with the Idaho Foodbank's mobile food pantry, he's hearing a lot of sad stories of hard-working families and elderly folks on fixed incomes who can't make ends meet. 

The mobile pantry served 888 families throughout the region last month, which translates into 2,539 people. The Idaho Foodbank also gives out about 300 backpacks filled with weekend food every Friday at 20 elementary schools, from Riggins to Asotin, he said.

At Community Action Partnership Food Bank in Lewiston, 2,572 households were served in October, which amounts to 6,459 individuals.

"Hunger is a big issue here in the valley and everywhere," Granbois said. "Many families are food insecure, which means they do not know what their next meal is or where it is going to come from."

Community Action's food bank provides government commodity foods to 21 other food pantries in the five north central Idaho counties and they are all dealing with the same issues, said Granbois, who has been manager for 13 years.

"This is very scary for the future on how to keep up with the growing demand. Before the community food drive last month, our food supply was lower than all the years I have been here at the food bank. The economy has affected us all."

Across the river, 299 families received food boxes at the Asotin County Food Bank in October, said Manager Jim Bailey. Recent collection efforts by school kids and the Boy Scouts helped stock the shelves for winter, and gardeners donated vegetables during the summer.

In addition, employees at area businesses have spearheaded helpful events, such as food and clothing drives. Churches, civic organizations and community groups have made a positive difference through fundraisers and other creative projects designed to help folks who are struggling.

Earlier this month, volunteers rolled up their sleeves for a new event called "Save the Pumpkin," which was launched by Tables of Hope this fall to provide homemade apple and pumpkin pies to needy families. Tables of Hope is a coalition of community members and agencies focused on addressing the hunger needs in the region.

"We wanted to save uncarved pumpkins from being thrown off roofs," said David Knittel, chairman of Tables of Hope and a development specialist for the Area Agency on Aging in Lewiston. "We didn't want to see food go to waste with so many people in need."

More than 200 pies were assembled and baked at Lewis-Clark State College's Sodexho kitchen for holiday food baskets that will be distributed through Community Action Partnership.

Apples were donated from the backyard harvest program and Washington State University agriculture department. The pumpkins were grown by area gardeners who participate in backyard harvest and other ingredients were donated by local grocers.

Organizers of "Save the Pumpkin" plan to make it an annual event and add more pie varieties, Knittel said.

More than 30 community volunteers and sorority members from LCSC and the University of Idaho pitched in to help with the baking.

"I love helping people," said Daisy Lopez, 20, of Umatilla, Ore., a member of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin sorority at LCSC. "I used to bake in high school for community service projects and I've missed it. It made me really happy to do this."

Magali Guerrero of Lewiston, 20, said it was her first pie-baking experience.

"It was fun. It's a great feeling to know we helped families who can't afford Thanksgiving dinner," said Guerrero, also an LCSC student.

Mass pie production is just one of the holiday-giving opportunities. The entire list of church, civic and private charitable organizations is too lengthy to include, but the Lewiston Tribune is providing numerous contacts for nonprofit organizations in today's newspaper. (See related list)

Some are annual favorites, such as Christmas Connection, one of the largest holiday-giving events in the area. Christmas Connection provides presents to children and food certificates to families from Clarkston, Lewiston, Lapwai, Asotin and Anatone. There is no income requirement.

"We encourage anyone in need to sign up," said Sharon Berry, office manager at St. Vincent de Paul in Clarkston. "We are anticipating a big increase this year. We really need donations. Our new goal is $45,000. Last year we served 644 families and we received $37,533."

The food banks can use help throughout the year, Granbois said, extending a thank you to folks who make donations.

"This is a very giving community," she said. "I appreciate all the support that comes our way to help those struggling to provide for themselves."