Food banks resemble Old Mother Hubbard

The cupboards are getting pretty bare as more and more people need help.

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WALLA WALLA - More people in the Walla Walla Valley are having a harder time making ends meet, and the sour economy is having a similar effect on many local food banks that could otherwise help them.

"The economy is about to conk everybody out," said Skip Lane, president of Walla Walla's Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The food coffers at St. Vincent de Paul and elsewhere around the area depend greatly on donations from individuals, organizations and food drives. But with winter coming on, shelves have been looking pretty lean.

A food drive handled by Assumption School was a "big success" and local produce gleaners and Spokane-based Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest have helped, he said.

But, he added, "The government has pulled out a little with the food they supply, like the tuna and peanut butter" although "that was to be expected because of their budget."

Food in local food banks will be used up soon without an infusion of donations to match rising family needs, according to Lane.

"It used to be that three or four years ago we'd see 160 families in a month," he said. "(In September) we saw 375 families and we haven't been below 330 families a month all year. We will top 400 (in October.) We just closed our fiscal year ... and we had seen 4,800 families for food."

Prices for necessities, including food, have increased, cutting into a family's overall finances and making budgeting more difficult if wages haven't risen or jobs have disappeared.

And the need is showing no class distinction.

Lane said people coming in for food represent all walks of life - some have a business background, some are just passing through.

"We treat everybody the same," he added.

At the Blue Mountain Action Council, a social services agency with a warehouse in Walla Walla that distributes food to charitable pantries that then distribute to people in need, the story is the same.

Kathy Covey, BMAC's director of community services, said the agency handles about 970 families a month.

"The need is up in all of our food banks by a significant percent, 20 percent," she said. "Most of that is with the senior population. More and more are seeking assistance. They may come in for the utility discount program ... then find out they are eligible for the basic food program."

Retirees are particularly vulnerable in today's economy, with savings paying little interest and many personal retirement plans subject to a volatile stock market. Add to that inflation, including food, gasoline and increased winter heating costs, and many seniors face uncertain or decreasing incomes.

"It's about the cost of living going up and their Social Security not," Covey said.

Although "the shelves were pretty bare in the food banks," Covey said, food drives large and small are doing what they can to blunt shortages.

The recent Care & Share food drive organized by area Realtors collected well over 30,000 pounds and "met and exceeded our expectations," she said.

But, said Gail McGhee, BMAC food bank manager, the food is going out as fast as it comes in.

"In 20 years I've never seen it like this," she said. "We're seeing a lot of families with children where both parents are working. And if you're not working, I don't know how you're making it."

Lane said these days remind him of stories his parents and family told of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but also with a bright side in that more people nowadays are reconnecting with their families and neighbors and learning thriftiness.

"There was no Social Security to rely on" during those hard times, he said. "Nothing. You took care of yourself. You can't just spend the whole paycheck. Maybe this will make people a little more thrifty."

People who need help or want to contribute to BMAC can call 509-529-4980.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

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