As the president and CEO of this country's largest food bank network, Deborah Leff deals with all sorts of numbers on a daily basis.
America's Second Harvest supplies food to pantries and soup kitchens in all 50 states. Last year, the Chicago-based organization delivered more than 1 billion pounds of food, feeding 26 million Americans — of whom 39 percent were working.
None of the figures, however, stand out more than this one: One out of every 10 Americans, according to Leff, is being fed by a charity that receives its food from America's Second Harvest.
"There was a time when people used to come for food as an emergency," says Leff. "Now we are seeing many more working families who come for regular support."
In basic economic terms, demand is outstripping supply. America's Second Harvest surveyed its 189 agencies this year and 45.5 percent said that they struggled to meet food requests.
"They said that they need twice as much food ... to meet the current need," says Leff.
Despite America's low unemployment rates and booming stock market, the growing lines at food banks reveal that more and more poor people, working or not, have trouble feeding themselves.
According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the demand for emergency food increased 26 percent from the previous year. In Detroit, 36 percent of the requests for food came from those who work and 68 percent of those people had children. In Michigan 8.1 percent of all households were at risk for hunger; the national average is 9.7 percent.
The sheer numbers can be staggering.
"We are moving 1.5 million pounds a month," says John Kastler, vice president of marketing and special projects for Gleaners Community Food Bank, which provides food to 340 pantries and soup kitchens in Wayne County.
According to Kastler, the organization has distributed 30 percent more food than last year. He says that this is in part due to having more delivery trucks, allowing agencies without transportation to receive food. A transport center was also set up in Taylor this year, providing help to pantries in western Wayne County.
Along with better distribution, Kastler also attributes the increase to a greater need created by welfare reform that is pushing people into jobs that keep them below the poverty level.
"There are some who are working who can't make it at the end of the month and need a little help," says Kastler.
Suzanne Chandler, development director of Baldwin Family Kitchen in Pontiac, reports that the number of meals served this year did not increase compared to 1998, when 15,500 meals were served. However, she says demand for other services has skyrocketed.
"We have had more requests to help pay rent and utilities bills than we have seen in the last couple of years," says Chandler, who gets about four calls of this kind a day. "People seem to have a lot more needs other than food."
Baldwin can afford to meet only two non-food requests a week and only up to $100, says Chandler.
"Things are not any better even though everyone says the economy is better," she says.
Helen Kowolski, executive director of the Oakland County Food Bank, agrees.
"It looks like it will be our biggest year ever," she says.
In October of last year, the food bank distributed 3.1 million pounds of food. By the same time this year, the agency delivered 3.5 million pounds. Kowolski expects to surpass last year's food distribution, which was 3.8 million pounds.
"It is ironic that in our booming economy we have more folks working but earning less, so the food bank system has become a safety net," she says.
Being the community's safety net isn't easy, says Kowolski. In the last couple years, the organization raised $750,000 to meet food demands. This year they had to raise $1.2 million.
"I think we are doing a really good job in meeting the need," says Kowolski. "But the question is how long can we do this?"
For information on how you can help your local food bank:
County Food Bank
County Food Bank
Community Food Bank