Although unemployment is dropping and the economy appears to be improving, local food pantries and helping agencies aren’t seeing a drop in need, forcing those groups to find a way to keep up with the increase or start cutting back.
For example, the Interchurch Food Pantry is giving out more food in order to keep people fed longer and save them money for other expenses. At The Refuge in Greenwood, the number of people using the food pantry and other services tripled from 8,400 people in 2012 to 23,000 in 2013, forcing it to cut back to serving only Johnson County families. The Lord’s Locker saw the number of families visiting weekly jump from about 50 to 70 this past fall, according to director Emmalea Butler.
So the need appears to be widespread and showing no signs of abating.
Compounding the problem, the United Way campaign fell short of its goal, which means local agencies might need to get by with less funding than they had planned on.
The unemployment rate in the county has dropped from about 8 percent to about 5 percent, but changes in federal programs hit the poorest residents the hardest, Interchurch Food Pantry co-manager Carol Phipps said. Federal lawmakers cut $5 billion from the national food stamp program, the state changed timing on when food stamp money is disbursed, and extended benefits for unemployed people also expired near the end of the year.
Those changes led to a surge in need during the past four months. Fewer people were using the pantry during the first eight months of the year, but the number of families needing help jumped 20 percent in the final four months of the year. That led to a 3.5 percent increase from 2012 to 2013 that hasn’t stopped. About 1,000 more people used the pantry in January and February this year compared with 2013, Phipps said.
Donations from local churches and service groups have helped, including canned vegetables or macaroni and cheese, which allow the pantry to use more money to buy items not often donated, such as meat, Phipps said. Families have been asking for more meat, milk and laundry detergent, so they are putting any extra money and donations toward getting more of those items, she said. Now families get an extra meat item, such as ground beef or pork, boxes of powdered milk and detergent.
Phipps said the pantry should be able to continue giving the extra food through summer but might have to give out less if donations drop.
Butler at the Trafalgar charity said, “Weekly we’re seeing little steps of success, and a lot of our clients aren’t coming every week.”
But to keep seeing those little steps of success, local charitable organizations will need continued support from area residents. So people need to continue giving food, time and, of course, cash.
Service and social organizations and churches can organize canned food drives to help support a nearby food pantry. Individuals can add a couple of cans of pasta or jars of peanut butter or a bottle of detergent to the weekly shopping trip and then drop off the items.
Also, the United Way continues to accept donations, which will help a variety of agencies across Johnson County.
It does not appear the level of need is going to abate soon, so it will be up to the rest of us to help our neighbors.