Once a crutch for the most needy, food pantries have responded to the deepening recession by opening their doors to what Rosemary Gilmartin, who runs the Interfaith Food Pantry here, described as “the next layer of people” — a rapidly expanding roster of child-care workers, nurse’s aides, real estate agents and secretaries facing a financial crisis for the first time.
Demand at food banks across the country increased by 30 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to a survey by Feeding America, which distributes more than 2 billion pounds of food every year. And instead of their usual drop in customers after the holidays, many pantries in upscale suburbs this year are seeing the opposite.
Here in Morris County, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, the Interfaith pantry opened for an extra night last week to accommodate the growing crowds. Among the first-time visitors were Cindy Dreeszen and her husband, who both have steady jobs — his at a movie theater and hers at a government office — with a combined annual income of about $55,000.
But with a 17-month-old son, another baby on the way, and, as Dreeszen put it, “the cost of everything going up and up,” the couple showed up in search of free groceries.
“I didn’t think we’d even be allowed to come here,” said Dreeszen, 41, glancing at shelves of fruit, whole-wheat pasta and baby food. “This is totally something that I never expected to happen, to have to resort to this.”
In Lake Forest, Ill., a wealthy Chicago suburb, a pantry in an Episcopal church that used to attract people from less affluent towns nearby has lately been flooded with people who have lost jobs. In Greenwich, Conn., a pantry organizer reported a “tremendous” increase in demand for food since December, with out-of-work landscapers and housekeepers as well as real estate professionals who have not made a sale in months filling the line.
And amid the million-dollar houses of Marin County, Calif., a pantry at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center last month changed its policy to allow people to stop by once a week instead of every other week, since there are so many new faces in line alongside the regulars.
“We’re seeing people who work at banks, for software firms, for marketing firms, and they’re all losing their jobs,” said Dave Cort, the executive director. “Here we are in big, fancy Marin County, but we have people who are standing in line with their eyes wide open, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m here.’ ”
The demand is not limited to pantries, which distribute groceries from food banks, supermarket surplus and individuals who donate through church or school can drives. The number of food-stamp recipients was up by 17 percent across New York state, and 12 percent in New Jersey, in November from a year before.
When a mobile unit of the Essex County welfare office, as part of a pilot program to distribute food-stamp applications in other counties, stopped in Shop-Rite parking lots recently in Morris County, it was swamped.