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Bare Cupboards

Community responds to UCM’s call for food donations, but demand is rising.

For years, ceramic artist Marcia Jestaedt and acrylic painter Ann McDowell have been organizing the Torpedo Factory’s Christmas food drives for UCM. Each time she takes the food collection box out of storage for another season, Jestaedt redecorates it with new Christmas motifs.

“There are people in need and we are warm and comfortable and our tummies are full,” she explained. Over this year’s holidays, artists and visitors to the Torpedo Factory donated almost 300 pounds of food.

But this year the box is celebrating another holiday. Responding to a call from UCM, Jestaedt took it out of storage a few weeks ago and, for the first time, wrapped it in pink hearts.

Robin Gilmore, UCM’s Deputy Executive Director of Social Services, said her organization usually sees a distinct cycle in demand for its food pantry. Need tends to peak in summer when children are out of school. It also rises in fall and early winter. Christmas donations would replenish UCM’s taxed stores.

But recently, Gilmore says, that cycle has flattened into a plateau. In response, UCM has had to put out special requests to donors like the Torpedo Factory. In recent weeks, high schools, banks, churches, shops and realtors have all responded. But although UCM is requesting emergency help in a moment of crisis, it is facing a trend that shows no sign of abating.

“When we put out the word, the response is tremendous,” said Gilmore, “but the bottom line is we’re giving out more food to more clients.”

LESTER WITHERSPOON has managed UCM’s food pantry for the last 18 months. He said that when he began, the organization was seeing about 50 clients a day. Now they are seeing about 80. UCM has expanded its hours to meet the demand, but its supplies of food are less elastic.

UCM prepares bags for homeless people and for families. For the homeless, its guidelines call for 11 types of food that don’t require cooking, like peanut butter, cereal, apple sauce and crackers. Bags for families are supposed to include 16 items, such as beans, soup, tomato sauce, meat, pasta rice bread and fresh vegetables.

At 3:30 on Friday, the shelves labeled for tuna and canned fruit are completely bare. Soup and cereal are in good supply because Witherspoon had stocked up on both categories the day before. On the pasta shelf are four boxes of instant macaroni and cheese, one box of penne pasta, and one each of Hamburger, Tuna and Chicken Helper. That shelf would have been bare as well if a donor had not dropped off all eight boxes only minutes before.

Now the next eight families that come in will get a box of pasta for the weekend. For the other missing items, “we try to improvise,” Witherspoon said. “We try to look for other things to put in the bag to make up for things we don’t have.”

Most donations come in at the beginning of the month, “by the third or fourth week we’re very, very low. So we’re hoping other organizations will help during that time.”

WITHERSPOON SAID the increasing number of non-profit organizations on Richmond Highway has cut into UCM’s share of donated food. Bethlehem Baptist Church and Rising Hope Methodist Church also run food pantries. Gilmore said the different non-profits collaborate as much possible, but she fears that there may be some overlap in services, including food pantries.

Rising Hope’s Laura Derby agreed that despite the high level of collaboration among Route 1 non-profits, some services do end up being duplicated. But she said even if families get food from UCM and Rising Hope in the same week, “none of us give them enough food for a full week, so it isn’t a matter of getting too much food.” She estimated that a bag of food from Rising Hope would be inadequate to feed one family of four for a full day.

Derby said that like UCM, Rising Hope has seen its numbers rise, from about 120 families per week to 220. But it has managed to keep its pantry full. She explained that her mission church has 52 other Methodist churches in its area, and it encourages each to take responsibility for one week.

She said awareness of the pantry has been rising, but “most of it relates back to the housing issue.”

“With the cost of the housing there just isn’t much left to go around.”

“I WISH WE HAD THE ANSWERS,” Gilmore said when asked why demand has been rising. She said low wages combined with “the outrageous expenses of living in Fairfax County” contribute to the problem. Many of her clients work two jobs and still need food assistance. While those who are homeles or disabled have always tended to be long-term clients for UCM, Gilmore said she is seeing more and more families whose need for food is more than temporary. “I think it’s a cumulative problem that’s been increasing over time.”

In fiscal year 2006 UCM, had 7,500 clients in 3,000 families. In fiscal year 2007 (which started in July) UCM has had 1,000 more food pantry clients than it did at the same time last year.

To register for the food pantry, clients must meet with a counselor and create a plan to make pantry visits unnecessary. UCM’s counselors work with clients to find employment, day care and government social services. Four to six weeks later, clients meet with a counselor again to review their progress and renew their pantry access. “No one gets turned away from our services, but we are trying to make sure we take the time to find out what families can do to make themselves self-sufficient, ” Gilmore explained.

She stressed that whenever UCM has been in desperate straits, “the community has responded.” But emergency food drives are an unsustainable solution to a trend of rising demand. “We don’t want to always be saying, ‘We’re in a crisis.’”