For dinner one night, Robyn Peace warmed up mixed vegetables from a can and wolfed it down with a slice of pizza.
To curb the hunger, she drinks water. When she’s really starving, she switches to Kool-Aid.
“You learn how to make it stretch,” Peace said earlier this week as she waited for a free box of groceries at St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food bank.
These days, stretching may be the only option for Peace and others who depend on the North Spokane charity.
Donations have dwindled; many shelves remain bare. But the lines outside keep getting longer.
No one leaves the food bank without groceries, but many say the amount has declined in recent months, particularly since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. After the slew of hurricanes and last week’s earthquake that killed tens of thousands in south Asia, some fear that donors may not have enough money left for area charities.
“People have given so much, but they’ve stopped giving on a local level,” St. Vincent’s operating director Mathew Meeusen lamented. “We are in great need.”
The food bank’s 18,000-cubic-foot locker is usually stuffed by now with pumpkin pie mix, jellied cranberries and other items for the holidays, but when Meeusen swung the doors open earlier this week, the storage unit was only 20 percent full.
Its contents were mostly junk food.
“This won’t get you through the day,” Meeusen said as he moved boxes of chips and stacks of chocolate pudding. “We need stew, peanut butter and basic necessities. People need protein.”
If the situation doesn’t improve, he said, “it’s going to be an Oliver Twist Christmas.”
Other food banks throughout the Inland Northwest are also concerned.
Peanut butter also ranks high on the list of needs at the Post Falls Food Bank, according to its manager, Cathy Larson. The food bank, which opened nearly 20 years ago, serves about 4,000 people a month – twice as many as those who sought assistance in 2001 and three times the number served a decade ago. But the organization can’t keep up with the growing demand for food and skyrocketing costs of gas and utilities.
“We’re living from month to month,” said Gina Dingman, acting president of the Post Falls Food Bank. “We appreciate the support that the community has been giving us, and we hope they can continue to support us in the future.”
The Coeur d’Alene Community Action Food Bank, which serves people throughout Kootenai County, is also helping out more people than ever. Last month, 2,389 families came through its doors – an increase of about 8 percent compared with the same period last year. On average, families who come for perishable items each week receive 23 pounds of bread, pastries, vegetables and other foods.
The food bank isn’t experiencing a major food shortage, but “we just need donations to continue,” said Mark Haberman, program manager. He’s especially concerned about getting enough turkeys for Thanksgiving. About two-thirds of its financial donations come during November and December, Haberman said, and he hopes people will continue to be generous.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, St. Vincent de Paul was already struggling. The food bank usually averages about 5,000 people each month during the summer, but more than 8,700 sought help in July alone.
“We used to get twice as much,” said Peace, who gets only $50 a month in food stamps to supplement the groceries she receives from St. Vincent’s.
There’s no meat or cheese, she said. Instead of quarts of milk, she gets powder; for protein, refried beans.
Of the 21 area food banks supplied by Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, St. Vincent de Paul receives more than 30 percent of the total food that’s distributed from the warehouse and is affected most by the lack of variety.
Although none of the groceries at the local Second Harvest was diverted to the Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina, national donors – grocers and manufacturers – have funneled their best products and many protein-rich foods straight to evacuees in Louisiana and other Southern states, said Ann Price of Second Harvest.
Protein comprises only about 80,000 pounds – less than 5 percent – of the food available at the local Second Harvest, she said. “We are donation-dependent when it comes to what we have available,” she said, “and typically at this time of year we are low on some of the things that St. Vincent and our other agencies most need.”
That’s why Meeusen has been pleading for donations of canned tuna, chili, soup and peanut butter. He said St. Vincent could also use cereal, macaroni and cheese mixes, Top Ramen noodles, baby food and formula. Until the need for protein is fulfilled, the boxes distributed won’t be nutritionally well-balanced, said Meeusen.
“No matter what, we just try and feed,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
While the amount of food is noticeably less, few recipients complain. As they waited for food at St. Vincent earlier this week, many were simply grateful they were guaranteed meals for the coming weeks. Dozens of people were already in line half an hour before the food bank opened at 9 a.m. Wednesday. They ended up sitting for nearly two hours in a crowded waiting area with pictures of Jesus on the walls and a sign over a cart full of bread that said, “Two per household please.”
At the pickup window, they each received a box that included a jug of orange juice, canned goods, dried figs,and rainbow-colored, icing-covered cakes that didn’t sell at area grocery stores.
“This helps me get through the whole month,” said Woodrow Horton of Spokane, who spends his $70 in monthly food stamps on reduced-price meat, whole chickens and other items that aren’t available these days at St. Vincent. “I’m thankful for what I get, even though it’s less.”
Despite the decrease and the fact that the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast have taken away some of the best goods that would normally have gone to food banks across the country, recipients here count their blessings.
“We’re fortunate – we still got our house,” said Laura Lancaster of Spokane. “They’ve got nothing down there.”
Ninety-one families from New Orleans and other parts of the south that were destroyed by Katrina and Rita have traveled to Spokane and registered as evacuees with the Inland Northwest chapter of the American Red Cross. These families and countless others who may not be on the Red Cross’ list have flocked to St. Vincent for help, said Meeusen.
The price of food and gas has already gone up as a result of the hurricanes, he said. This not only puts pressure on area food banks, it also increases the need since people on the brink of poverty will no longer be able to afford to drive their cars or buy groceries.
It’s too soon to know if the recent disasters will affect donations to local charities, said Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest. “Spokane has a very generous spirit,” he said. “Disaster relief is critical, but it’s also critical to remember the work we need to do in the community. We ask people to do both.”
Less than two months ago when Katrina struck, Jessica Dacosta of Spokane had gathered up toys and other household items to donate to victims. But after her husband lost his job and their savings quickly ran out, the family of four discovered they couldn’t live on her income alone.
“It’s different to be on this end,” said a teary-eyed Dacosta, who works for a North Idaho collections agency and in the past,has volunteered at area soup kitchens. “We were fine a month ago, but after the house payments, the car payments, the insurance.”
Earlier this week, she looked in their cupboards and realized she had no choice: She found herself in line at St. Vincent de Paul’s food bank.