With stuffed turkeys and green bean casseroles as much a part of the holidays as Black Friday sales and wrapping paper, the season is the most obvious time of the year to help local food banks bring dinners to the tables of needy families.
But as the new year gets under way, some food pantries are girding for the annual drought of donations by stretching the abundance of resources that builds up each November and December.
"We do get more than usual around this time, but that drops off in January and February," said Carol Lambert of the Feed My Sheep Food Pantry in Slippery Rock. Although grateful for the bounty, she said the supplies would have to last until summer, when churches in nearby Harrisville host an annual Gospel rally and food drive.
Michael Glass of Northside Common Ministries Food Pantry on the North Side said the benevolence not only peaks during the holidays but also reaches such a level that he is forced to turn away interested volunteers, a move that would seem unfathomable the rest of the year. At the moment, Mr. Glass said, the pantry has plenty of food and enough socks and underwear "to last until September," but he does not know whether anyone will be around to help distribute the items the rest of the year.
"I wish people would understand because they feel benevolent today, people need help in July, August, all year round," he said. "It would be much better if someone who had three hours to give [on New Year's Eve] would give three hours the first Friday of every month. I could plan the budget better, make payroll. It would really help out."
To add to the problem, 8.8 million families fell into poverty in 2009, causing local shelters to see a dramatic increase in clientele last year. Northside Common Ministries saw an average of 620 clients per month, compared with an average of 420 per month five years ago. Ms. Lambert said the pantry handed out about 70 packaged family snack bags per month five years ago but gave out more than 200 in November. The number of families served during that time rose from about 120 per month to 165 in November.
Captain Henry Thibault, head pastor of the Salvation Army Food Pantry in Butler, said the increase had challenged the organization during off-peak donation months.
"There are a lot more people signing up for the food bank. Demand is outweighing supply right now," he said.
Rather than discouraging giving, the difficult economic times appear to be encouraging people to give more, particularly around the holidays, most shelter workers said.
"The positive thing about the recession is it made people re-evaluate their priorities, and they turned to giving gifts that have meaning," said Anne Hawkins, chief development officer of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne.
Ms. Lambert said several parents brought children to the pantry to volunteer during their holiday breaks, and that one volunteer donated hand-knitted fleece throws to families with children who served around December.
"One lady said, 'That's going to be my daughter's Christmas present. I have nothing to buy gifts with,' " she said.
As much as any assistance to food pantries is appreciated, Mr. Glass said, the help could go much further if donors would spread the large amount given during the holidays throughout the entire year.
"Dairy, flour, sugar, eggs, cheese -- things people really need that would held them a lot -- we're always looking for those things all year," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published January 6, 2011 10:30 AM