Rain fell on nearly 300 people who waited in line recently for an hour to pick up Thanksgiving turkeys and bags of groceries distributed by Interfaith Food Ministry.
Standing in line were young mothers holding babies, seniors pushing walkers, out-of-work men with weary faces and homeless men with dogs. Poverty brought them all.
“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Scott Nelson, an out-of-work nurseryman. Standing in line beside him was Jim Granholm, a phlebotomist, also out of work.
Ronna Carlson unloaded food from a grocery cart to supplement her family’s pantry. She is struggling to raise her growing grandson, age 14.
“I need all the help I can get raising him. It used to be groceries weren’t a problem. They’ve gone up so much now, I don’t make it to the end of the month,” she said.
The scene is a typical one this time of year, said Sue Van Son, president of Interfaith Food Ministry, .
Though support for the organization remains stronger than ever, the cost of food and the need for assistance to get through the bleak months of winter is high with no signs of abating.
At the Food Bank of Nevada County, donations have declined to worrisome levels.
This fall, 45,000 mailers went out to Nevada County residents asking for donations. Returns are less than anticipated. The pink plastic piggy banks set up around town at area businesses are also slow to fill.
“We haven’t seen it yet. Usually by now we’re inundated with donations,” said Executive Director Toni Thompson, anxious on the Friday before Thanksgiving when potatoes and sweet potatoes were still in short supply for holiday meal boxes.
She thinks the unstable economy is keeping donations tight.
“I’ve never seen it so bad… We’re worried because the holiday season is right around the corner,” Thompson said.
Life gets hard
In Nevada County, 7,339 people are currently getting food assistance through the CalFresh program (formerly known as Food Stamps), according to Kevin Olson, Public Assistance program manager of the Department of Social Services.
That’s an increase of 15.7 percent over 2011 figures when 6,345 were enrolled in the program last October.
The number of food stamp-type recipients has increased by 155.62 percent since 2007, when 2,872 people used them.
In 2011 an asset requirement was waived, making it possible for more people to qualify for food stamps, a timely change when a growing percentage of the population is struggling to live on incomes significantly less than a few years ago.
The maximum income a family of four can earn to qualify for food stamp assistance is $2,498.
Sometimes, food stamps aren’t enough. A variety of situations bring people to seek food at Interfaith Food Ministry and the food bank.
“It’s everything from homelessness to people working part-time and don’t make enough to make ends meet,” Van Son said.
Some have lost their job. Others work two or three minimum wage jobs to get by or live on fixed incomes and the medical and utility bills are piling up.
“Now there’s not enough money for food anymore. … You get to a point when life gets very hard and it’s hard to get out. … People are in such a vulnerable place and it can be hopeless,” Van Son explained.
The mission of her organization is to give a hand up rather than a handout.
Upwards of 1,800 families are registered to receive food with Interfaith Food Ministry. In October, the organization gave out 6,386 bags of groceries. Between January and October of this year, volunteers gave out 61,926 bags of food.
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to watch, Van Son said. An increasingly familiar scene is that of the man who walks in with downcast eyes who has realized that feeding his family is more important than his pride.
“There’s a lot of people trying so hard to do it on their own. … It’s hard to walk through the doors and ask for help,” she said.
Best way to help
Food donations are always welcome but sometimes what comes in is unusable. Thompson advises: Donate food you would eat yourself. Old food cleaned out of the back of the cupboard with long ago expired dates is of help to no one.
Instead, financial donations are the best way to give because organizations know how to stretch a dollar and can often buy in bulk at rates better than the average consumer.
Extending through Christmas, a donation of $20 to Interfaith Food Ministry’s “Operation Turkey” program will support a family and buy a turkey or chicken and all the fixings for a holiday meal.
Much of the food given away at Interfaith is gleaned. Drivers go out everyday to area grocery stores to pick up fruits and vegetables, bread and pastries with close “sell by” dates. On Saturdays, they hit the farmers markets to pick up any extras.
“It’s hugely important to give highly nutritious food,” Van Son said.
Gleaning salvages food that might otherwise end up in the waste stream. Food waste is considered a big global problem. As much as one-third of the food produced — 1.3 billion tons — is never consumed while 900 million people go hungry, according to Food Wastage Footprints, a 2012 United Nations report.
Donations to the food bank help purchase produce grown by local farmers and supports the garden program. Hundreds of pounds were harvested from the garden this year and another garden is set to grow more food next spring in Penn Valley.
A converted Frito Lay truck delivered fresh food all over the county this summer in mobile farmers market fashion.
Both the food bank and Interfaith are looking for permanent food distribution centers in Grass Valley.
Meanwhile, the area’s poor tough it out. Two homeless men took a break on the curb while they figured out how to lug their bags of groceries back to camp and once there how to cook a turkey without an oven using two small aluminum pans.
“We’ll make it. We always make it,” they said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 401-4877.