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As downturn takes toll, food bank volunteers become clients

December 18, 2009

foodThe longest recession since the Great Depression has taken an exacting toll on Americans and their ability to put food on the table. Families who once considered themselves solidly middle class are now signing up for food stamps or turning to food banks to feed themselves in the face of lost jobs or cut wages.

“These are our neighbors, our friends, the people we go to church with,” said Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation, of the number of Americans who are going hungry. “This is not like this is the other, people we don’t know. These are people we do know.”

Food stamp enrollment has reached record numbers, while a  survey by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, found that 99 percent of participating food banks reported a surge in demand for emergency food assistance in the past year. Ninety-eight percent of food banks said that demand is being driven by first time users.

Jean Osborn, 61, who lives in Bluffton, Indiana with her 76-year-old husband, knows what it means to lose her footing in this economy. Osborn can no longer work due to health issues and her husband supports them with a factory job that pays $33,000 a year — an income level that means the couple does not qualify for many government benefits.

So Osborn, who used to volunteer at food banks to help the needy, now relies on them to feed herself and her husband. She tries to extend the hand-outs of bread, peanut butter or meat as long as possible.

“If you’re creative, you can make chili and live on it for three days,” she said.

But between paying a $540 mortgage, medical bills and living expenses, Osborn said she can still barely make ends meet.

“It’s like someone is squeezing me by the neck, and it’s getting tighter and tighter,” she said.

escarraVicki Escarra, Feeding America’s CEO, said the increases food banks are seeing in demand from new clients is unprecedented, and could continue despite signs that the worst of the recession may have past.

“We’re going to be dealing with this issue for at least another three years, and I even think that is conservative because I think it’s going to take a while to rebuild middle income jobs,” she said.

“As the economy recovers, the real issue for us will be keeping donors focused on the fact that unemployment is not going to rebound as quickly,” she added. “So families are going to continue to need support and help from our food banks.”

(Photos taken by Reuters. Lower photo of taken of Vicki Escarra at a Reuters event earlier this year)

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