Local food pantries, safety net strained

(Photo by Mr. Kris)

part 1:
The Food Pantries
In Saugerties, demand is up 10% & donations are down 10%

 ‘People say they can either buy gas or eat…’

On a brisk, sunny Sunday afternoon a line of people bundled up in jackets and bulky sweaters extends down Fair St. At first glance, they could be Black Friday shoppers, braving the cold for discounted flat-screen televisions. But look closer, and you see a different emotion on the faces of the people outside the St. James Methodist Church Food Pantry; not anticipation, but weariness. All Hudson Valley families have experienced rising costs on essentials like food, clothing, heat, telephone and gasoline, while relatively few have seen comparable increases in salaries or benefits. For the middle and upper classes, that means fewer nights dining out or less ambitious vacations. For the working poor, it can mean the difference between putting food on the table and paying the bills. And this year, more than any before it, the people at local food pantries are working people. They have jobs, but they don’t make enough to get by.

“People say they can either buy gas or eat,” said Marilyn Richardson, manager of the Saugerties Area Council of Churches. “I have people coming in with kids who are barely brushing their teeth because they cannot afford toothpaste or toothbrushes. There’s these beautiful children, and then when they smile their teeth are all rotted.”


This time of year, it’s customary for local food pantries to remind us to donate. Winter is an especially hard time, with a drop in income for families that rely on non-retail seasonal employment coming at the same time as heat bills and holiday shopping.

But this year, it’s different. The situation is more dire. According to Richardson, need is up by 10 percent and donations are down by 10 percent over last year, which also witnessed a steep jump in need and drop in donations. Gas prices are up nearly 50 percent over two years ago, Central Hudson’s rates are up 11 percent, heating oil is up 5 percent and Time Warner recently announced a new “modem fee.” The trend suggests a bad situation getting worse for the Hudson Valley working poor.

“The cost of everything has gone up a lot in the last few years,” said Family of Woodstock executive director Michael Berg. “I think we are just seeing the net impact of a few years. It’s getting to be nearly impossible and people are making difficult decisions.”


Changing face of need

Back at the St. James food pantry, people talk about the dismal math of rising costs and flat wages. For the sake of anonymity, the names of the food pantry recipients have been changed. “Belinda,” a per diem medical technician, explained that she has been frequenting food pantries for the past year ever since a $100 monthly rent increase coincided with several steep dental bills. This is not the only food pantry she visits, she said, explaining that she also goes to another pantry in Kingston, depending on the hours and her family’s needs. Belinda said she helps support her 23-year-old daughter and two-year-old granddaughter who both live with her, as well as her 22-year-old son—neither of whom are currently working.

“I know I shouldn’t be supporting them like this, and they should have jobs to help me out,” she said. “But, it doesn’t seem to be happening, and meanwhile we gotta eat… right?”

Senior citizen “John” said his Social Security check leaves him high and dry by the end of the month. So he has to cut back; no cable television. He does, however, return the good karma by volunteering at a local soup kitchen periodically, he explained.

Marilyn Richardson talks about the changing circumstances of those who use the Saugerties Food Pantry, which has been around since 1974. Richardson noted an increase in working poor who own homes but have nothing left by the end of the month. “A good percentage of people who are working and have cars are coming in,” she said. “Years ago, it would only be some people who own a car, and maybe a part-time job but not a full-time job. Now we have an open-door policy and it doesn’t matter if you have a full-time job and you own a home. If they have a job and a mortgage, but they have nothing left over for groceries, we are here.” The pantry is funded mostly by large donations from area businesses such as Adams Fairacre Farms, and the remaining 20 percent comes from food and housing grants. In 2011, the Saugerties pantry’s monthly average was 257 adults, 167 children and 20 seniors—with an overall average of 162 households receiving assistance monthly.


Other pantries see similar circumstances

The Kingston Church of the Holy Cross at 30 Pine Grove Ave. has opened a “soap closet” in addition to their regular food pantry, with hours the last week of the month when the need is the greatest. Volunteers package toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper, lotion, sometimes shampoo, sometimes hand soap, as well as one “big” item, such as toothpaste, a tooth brush, detergent or dish detergent. They’ve been averaging about 50 bags a month, more than in recent years.

Lake Katrine’s Bread of Life pantry serves 120 families with three meals per week, said pantry director Justina Karston. Like other pantries, donations are down and need is up, including a need for personal hygiene items. Karston said many of the families come from nearby motels and the trailer park, a mile’s walk.

Rosendale Food Pantry board vice president Debbie Checchia said she sometimes worries they will run out of food and have to turn someone away. Thanks to two recent successful food drives, that won’t be happening this month. The pantry serves 155 families of four or more. Checchia blames unemployment for the increased need.


How to help

In addition to canned and dry goods, the Saugerties pantry needs donations of soap, shampoos, toothpaste and toilet paper. Visit SaugertiesFoodPantry.SawyerVision.org, send money donations to PO Box 723, Saugerties, NY, 12477, or drop off donations at 44 Livingston Street.

The Bread of Life is at 865 Neighborhood Rd. in Lake Katrine and can be reached at 339-4019.The pantry is open to serve the community the first and third Fridays of each month from 12-2 p.m. as well as every Sunday 12:30-2 p.m.

For the Rosendale pantry, there are drops at the Tillson General Store, Rosendale Library and the Rosendale Town Hall. Rosendale Food Pantry can be reached at 399-7997, and is located on 45 James St., Rosendale—open Mondays 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.-12 p.m.

-Carrie Jones Ross