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As economy heals, families go hungry

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 2, 2010, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 30, 2012, at 4:58 p.m.

Until a month ago, Lisa worked for a community service organization in El Dorado that helped those struggling to make ends meet. Then the grant money ran out, and the single mother of two teenagers was laid off. Now she needs help.

That's what brought Lisa to the United Methodist's Open Door's food pantry at 1611 N. Mosley on Tuesday.

"There are a lot of families working hard to do something with their lives," said Lisa, who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons.

She tried to prepare for hard times, which is why she has enough savings to rent a house in Wichita for at least a few months. But her resources are limited.

"There are a lot of struggles, a lot of hurdles," Lisa said.

She joins a growing list of those who need a boost to handle those bumps.

Last year's unemployment high for the Wichita area was about 29,000, double what it was the previous year.

While there are signs the local economy is improving, there are many who are just now reaching the end of their resources after being laid off or having their hours cut.

The Kansas Food Bank, which serves 85 counties in the state, has seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in demand for food from last year, said Brian Walker, the nonprofit's president and CEO.

While workers at some of the city's food pantries and other groups that provide food say the number of households they are seeing is down slightly, those households have increased in size.

That's because families are combining under one roof to help cut costs, said Donna Volz, Open Door's community services director.

"Locally, the economy is probably stabilizing but stabilizing low," Volz said. "We're seeing more people and more children."

One out of 20 Wichita children don't get enough to eat, according to the Kansas Food Bank.

About 42 percent of the nearly 7,350 people the Open Door served in April were under 18. Eleven percent were under 5.

Overall, the nearly 33,500 food boxes distributed by Open Door in 2009 was 8 percent higher than in 2008. In the first four months of this year, the pantry passed out nearly 10,000 boxes, Volz said.

At Street Lights' pantry, which opened last June in a converted garage at 1658 S. Topeka, someone from a household of 15 showed up recently.

Street Lights provided food for about 8,900 people through the first five months of this year, including more than 3,600 children, said Sam Boxberger, who founded the ministry with his wife, Lois.

"There are a lot of people who are pretty much one paycheck away from needing help," Sam Boxberger said.

He counted himself as one of those. Employed by an aircraft company, he was two days away from being laid off when the company found another spot for him with a sizable pay cut.

Kansas Food Bank serves as a warehouse to pass along food at no cost or reduced cost to about 300 organizations, including 112 in Sedgwick County. In a recent survey, the food bank found that 40 percent of the households served by those groups have at least one adult member who is employed.

"That tell us at least 40 percent of the households just don't have enough to get by," Walker said. "There are folks who can't work. But the mindset that the majority are folks who just don't want to help themselves is not accurate."

The food bank's survey also found that 45 percent of the people served through the organizations had to choose between buying food and paying the rent or mortgage.

Most pantries that provide food allow only one distribution of food per month.

Those food boxes aren't meant to last for an entire month. For instance, Volz said Open Door's box is intended to last two or three days.

So households are encouraged to draw on the resources of other pantries or eat at soup kitchens throughout the month.

"You can find food at different places in Wichita," Sam Boxberger said. "I tell people, 'Don't lose your home. Pay your utilities, pay your rent and find food from somewhere.' "

Even at the Boxbergers' back door, which a woman recently chose to do.

"She didn't have any food for her children," Lois Boxberger said. "If you come to my back door, you get food."

The organizations often have to struggle to keep their shelves stocked. Sometimes one can of green beans goes into the box instead of two.

At Open Door, Volz said she draws heavily on the Kansas Food Bank and donations from Leeker's Family Foods grocery store.

"It's a lot to expect from a community," she said, "but Wichita has done a great job. The food bank is amazing."

The Boxbergers rely heavily on their resources to provide food at the Street Lights, Sam Boxberger said. Obtaining food from the food bank at low cost or no charge has been their lifeline.

"The food bank saves us," Sam Boxberger said.

The Kansas Food Bank, which handles about 8 million pounds of food annually, has to be creative in searching for its food sources.

"There's never enough," Walker said, "but we haven't had to turn any agencies away."

About 25 percent of its food is purchased, 50 percent comes from outside the state through its partnership with Feeding America, 10 percent from government commodities and 15 percent from local donations, Walker said.

The purchase price tag is growing. With still a month to go, the food bank has purchased $1.2 million in food this fiscal year — up from $300,000 from five years ago, Walker said.

For more than a year, the food bank has been sending out refrigerated trucks to collect unsold food from Wal-Mart, Sam's and Dillons.

"They save perishable products that are still good but might not be to the standards they want to sell in the stores," Walker said.

Since Jan 1, he said the food bank has picked up about a half-million pounds of food from those stores.

"That's a half-million pounds that otherwise might have gone to the landfill," Walker said.

Meanwhile, Volz logged 420 new families into the Open Door's records in April.

"The need sure isn't going down," she said. "The economic outlook may not be as grim as a year ago, but people still need us."

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