For the first time in a decade, Loaves and Fishes of Macon doesn’t have turkeys, hens or Thanksgiving food baskets to give to the needy.
The nonprofit, which provides food to the poor as well as transitional housing and support for the temporarily unemployed, also didn’t have Thanksgiving baskets for the residents of its 11 transitional homes, said Mary Gatti, the agency’s development director.
Many local food banks have struggled to meet demand in a sour economy that has driven many more people to seek assistance.
ABC News has reported that many food banks across the country are thousands of turkeys short of what they usually provide to those who lack the money to buy a traditional Thanksgiving meal. That may be partly because turkey prices are up this year.
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However, in Middle Georgia, food banks mostly provide hens rather than turkeys. Ronald Raleigh, executive director of the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank, said the food bank has distributed close to 15,000 baking hens and has been able to meet the needs of most of the 308 agencies -- including the Salvation Army, Loaves and Fishes and many others -- that depend on it for food supplies to offer needy families.
Those needs are growing all the time. For example, the food bank usually provides 12,500 hens, Raleigh said.
The Salvation Army gave out 200 Thanksgiving food boxes Saturday with hens it received from the food bank, said Peggy Steele, development director. “We couldn’t seem to find turkeys this year,” she added.
The mission is still receiving requests for Thanksgiving food boxes but has no more, Steele said.
In Houston County, many churches and agencies that provide food for the needy also get it through the Community Food Bank. However, because the bank has been running low on food, affiliate organizations have had to buy food at grocery stores, which is considerably more expensive, or rely on donations of food.
Linda Thomas, care director at New Hope International in Warner Robins, said meat has been the biggest shortage in the food pantry the ministry operates. In August 2010, the pantry gave out food to 27 families, she said. This year it gave out food to 73.
“The economy is rough and people are trying to make it from week to week,” she said. “It’s pretty much that same story with everybody.”
She is also director of Feed the City, which gives out a turkey and a bag of canned food to families for Thanksgiving. At the event held Saturday, 1,250 people lined up for food. That’s down from last year, she said, but she attributed that to last year’s event having more publicity.
“I know the need is greater this year,” she said.
For about three weeks, Loaves and Fishes was able to give away about 20 hens a week in preparation for Thanksgiving, Gatti said. Those are gone.
Macon Outreach provided hens to families with children who came for grocery donations, said Kathleen Livingston, program services coordinator. The ministry, run by Mulberry United Methodist Church, also offered a Thanksgiving meal last Friday to homeless and needy visitors, about 300 of whom were served at their tables as at a restaurant.
Raleigh said although the food bank was able to meet Thanksgiving demand, its stocks are very low going into the Christmas season.
“We’re at 30 percent of our capacity,” he said. “We need at least 60 percent of capacity to have enough volume of food and categories of food to provide to the programs that use our services.”
State red tape
However, the low supply isn’t due to low donations from individuals, businesses, churches and charities. Raleigh said the problem is actually the Georgia Department of Human Services, which has held up food contracts. The department handles U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded food programs for the needy, funneling the federal money into supplier contracts.
Raleigh said the contracts for the new fiscal year are normally signed early enough that the food bank can start purchasing food by Nov. 15.
“We haven’t even seen the contracts yet this year,” he said. “I had to cancel five tractor-trailer loads (of food) last week.”
This holdup comes at the same time that demand at food banks increases over the holidays. Plus, demand remains high because of the large number of people who remain unemployed or in lower paying jobs than they had before the recession, Raleigh said.
Raleigh said demand for food assistance has increased 15 to 20 percent each year for the last three years.
Steele estimated that the Salvation Army has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in demand this year. She said some families find themselves choosing between food and rent.
“We’re trying to help with groceries, in some cases, to prevent homelessness,” she said.
Jeff Nicklas, executive director of the Macon Rescue Mission, estimates that demand for food assistance may be as much as 25 percent higher than last year.
He said other government agencies, such as the Department of Family and Children Services, are running out of money and referring people to the mission, which usually gives out 350 to 400 food boxes a month to the elderly and disabled. By Monday, the mission had already distributed 375 boxes, he said.
Fortunately, the mission has received food from some sources it didn’t have last year, such as 2,000 pounds of food donated at a recent Skydog concert. But the need is so great that its stores are running low.
Loaves and Fishes doesn’t have enough food to fulfill the demand, Gatti said. The agency gives out groceries to 60 people a week. The agency takes sign-ups for an hour a week by phone, but now the list usually fills up in 15 minutes, with 20 or 30 callers being turned away afterward.
Local businesses and schools have contributed with canned food drives, which have helped, but donations are still down overall, said Gatti and Steele.
Steele said the donations the Salvation Army does receive are smaller than in the past. “Some folks who were donating small amounts are now on our list to receive help,” she added.
Livingston said Macon Outreach has been more fortunate than some providers elsewhere in the country. “Right now, we have a lot of help from the community,” she said. “This community has really been letting this happen for people in need.”
Staff writer Wayne Crenshaw contributed to this report. To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.