Food bank donors step up

Omaha World-Herald

By Emily Babay

Just minutes after Mission for All Nations opened the doors to its food pantry Tuesday night, dozens of people filled the waiting room, eager to stock up on cereal, fruits and vegetables. Cars were double-parked outside the faith-based charity near South 21st and Q Streets.

And that, executive director Mary Anaya said, was a slow night.

The previous week — at the end of the month, when paychecks, unemployment benefits and food stamps run low — more than 400 people received food.

As the economy continues to lag, area food programs are seeing big increases in the number of people seeking help, forcing food banks and pantries to spend more money and be more aggressive in seeking donations and volunteers.

Through the end of July, the Omaha Food Bank had distributed 10 percent more food this year than in 2008, spokesman Brian Barks said.

At Mission for All Nations, the number of clients is up 75 percent compared with last year. And the Salvation Army has seen a 27 percent increase in the number of people receiving assistance from its food pantry.

The Salvation Army pantry used to see 20 to 25 people a day during the four days it is open each week. Now, 40 to 45 is the standard, and the pantry saw about 100 people on a single day last week, said Dennis Snook, program director for the material assistance and seasonal services department.

The Salvation Army is purchasing more from the Food Bank, where agencies can buy items at a reduced cost. It budgeted $30,000 this year for food aid — an increase from the usual $25,000 — and has already surpassed that amount, Snook said.

To handle the demand, the organization also is seeking partnerships. In July, it worked with the Omaha Fire Department to collect food donations at fire houses.

The Food Bank is trying to solicit donations and raise awareness of hunger issues through mailings and events, Barks said. So far, the approach is working.

Donations are up 4 percent this year, Barks said. Its recent “O! What a Duck Race” fundraiser garnered $120,000.

Contributions have also stayed strong at the United Methodist Food Pantry, director Barbara Gresham said. But to cope with increased demand, she has had to call area churches and ask for donations more frequently.

And when she asks for the help, people donate, Gresham said.

“If they stopped, there would be no pantry.”

The pantry served 1,157 people between April and June — about twice as many as in the same period last year, Gresham said.

She said first-time clients often are families who have taken in relatives, straining their household budget.
In Sioux City, Iowa, four of the 10 months with the highest food-distribution totals in the Food Bank of Siouxland’s 18-year history have occurred this year, executive director Linda Scheid said.

That has led the food bank to expand its freezer space, increase promotion efforts for its major food drives and launch a direct-mail campaign to solicit donations.

To handle the demand in Omaha, Mission for All Nations needs more volunteers and increasingly asks the church groups it works with for help, Anaya said. More than 40 volunteers staff the pantry on a typical day.

Those receiving food appreciate the effort.

Alaina Patten has seen the Mission for All Nations pantry become more crowded over the past two years. The unemployed mother of three receives food stamps, but she said they’re not always enough.

“This fills in those gaps,” Patten said.

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