Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eating up resources — Risings costs challenge food bank, its clients to make ends meet

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Harry Moore has spent 50 years contri-buting to the community.

Moore moved to the central Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage in 1952 when the Sterling Highway opened. He home- steaded on Funny River Road and spent his working years in trades that helped build brand-new Soldotna — “mechanic, road const- ruction and what not,” he said.

Since retiring, he’s facing the same dilemma many seniors are — income is fixed, but bills are not. Heating, electricity, Medicare, gas and food costs spiral upward, leaving Moore and others who once helped build communities now needing help from them.

On Nov. 19 help came from the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. Moore had a cab drop him and his power wheelchair off at the food bank just before 11 a.m., so he could sign the form for the seniors’ commodity supplemental food program. The program provides him with a slab of cheese and a prepacked box of food once a month, containing a variety of items — cereal, beans, peanut butter, powdered milk and the like.

“With me, I don’t need very much,” he said.

He’s been coming to the food bank for 10 or 15 years now, he said. He used to come in almost daily to eat lunch in the food bank’s soup kitchen, the Fireweed Diner. Now it’s more infrequently, but he doesn’t miss senior food box distribution day.

In the food bank’s records, Moore is a client, one of hundreds of seniors who get help during the month. But he’s more than a number. To his fellow Fireweed diners he’s a good lunch buddy, a sure bet for a laugh, quick with a smile, and he’s at the point in life where a good story takes precedence over a sip of coffee or spoonful of soup. To food bank staff, he’s also a supporter. He makes items for the food bank’s annual auction fundraiser, and brings a pan of homemade, sugar-free fudge that has become legendary in the building.

“I think there’s a lot of people in the community they do a lot of services for, mainly the elderly and what not, you know,” Moore said of the food bank. “It’s real important. They do a lot of services for the community. That’s why I make some stuff for the auction.”

Being both a contributor and consumer may be the attitude to take for seniors who find it difficult to go from taking care of themselves and others to needing help making ends meet.

“I don’t know what they think, but they probably think they’re getting something for nothing. I don’t think that’s the case. I think everybody contributes something to the community,” he said.

Senior food boxes are distributed a few days a month. Nov. 19 was the first day of distribution this month, which resulted in a line of seniors waiting to sign the eligibility form and pick up their food.

But the wait was short and the mood amiable, with many seniors making an afternoon of the errand by stopping for a hearty, well-balanced lunch and conversation in the Fireweed Diner, which serves meals on a donation basis.

“The lunch is nice, too. It gives you a chance to get out at noon,” said Phyllis Sather, of Soldotna.

Sather has been getting senior food boxes for the last three or four months, she said. Heating, electricity, gas and food bills have been going up.

“Oh yeah, every time you go to the store it seems like it goes up,” she said.

There isn’t a large amount of food in the boxes, but it helps, she said. A little bit goes a long way, especially when it can be difficult to seek help in the first place.

“I never signed up for anything like this before,” she said.

Evelyn Brandt, of Soldotna, was pragmatic about the food program.

“I find a use for most of it. If I don’t, I bring it back,” she said. “You get a lot of beans. You can do a lot of things with beans. It helps you know what you have to buy and what you don’t have to buy.”

Brandt has lived in the area off and on since 1969, raising her kids here and working a variety of jobs, including at the old Soldotna Drug Store and as a travel agent. She’s been getting senior boxes for the last three years and said anyone who’s eligible should take advantage of the program.

“If it’s pride that keeps them away, they better think about it. They’ll be starving,” she said.

The food bank has seen an increase in people seeking services, paralleling rising food, gas, heat, electricity, health care and other costs, said Linda Swarner, executive director of the food bank.

Last year the food bank gave senior food boxes to an average of 290 people a month. This year it’s 321. The Fireweed Diner served an average of 1,699 meals a month last year, compared to 1,981 this year. The food bank also gives out emergency food boxes to low-income households once a month and distributes perishable items — like yogurt, bread and milk. The monthly average of households getting emergency food boxes this year is 549, up from 510 last year, and the monthly average of people picking up perishable items is 532 this year, compared to 494 last year.

Eligibility for food bank programs is dependant on income. Seniors have an income limit of $22,750 for a two-person household, and families eligible for emergency food boxes can make $32,375 for a two-person household. There is some minimal paperwork to be filled out for food boxes, but it all basically operates on the honor system. If someone says they need help, the food bank believes them.

The problem is there may not be enough food to help everyone who needs it. Rising bills means a rising number of food bank clients, but it also means fewer donations. Food for the diner, food boxes and other services the food bank provides — like giving food to senior centers to use to cook lunch — come from grocery stores and donations from the public. The food bank is getting school groups and others coming in to volunteer service with the holidays approaching, but the amount of donated food is not as high as it’s been in past years.

Swarner said the food bank has given out 10,000 more pounds of food on average each month than they’ve taken in. Food drives in November and December are usually a big boost to the food bank, especially in providing holiday food boxes for families.
“It looks like our food drives are going to be a lot less, just the way the economy is,” Swarner said.

Last year was the first that the food bank didn’t have enough food to meet holiday needs. Monetary donations from the business community allowed the food bank to go buy turkeys from grocery stores to give to people. This year the state is chipping in $6,000 to be shared between the Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula food banks to buy food to give out for the holidays, Swarner said.

And she’s still hopeful for an increase in donations.

“We just received three turkeys, so you just pray that somebody’s going to keep coming through the door,” Swarner said. “We have a very generous community. It’s just going to be tough, though.”

No comments: