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Surge seen in need for donated food New faces at pantries, dining rooms

Ed "Mac" MacPherson knows the newcomers.

They reach for a tray, instead of sitting down at a table and allowing a volunteer to serve them a meal, as is customary in the St. Vincent de Paul Society dining room.

Lately, MacPherson, the dining room manager, has observed quite a few people grabbing trays.

"There's a lot of new faces," said MacPherson, estimating as many as a dozen a day.

This year, the dining room has been cooking 1,500 to 2,000 more meals per month than in 2007. It's one example of a growing appetite for donated food.

The Food Bank of Western New York expects to redistribute more than 12 million pounds of food this year -- a nearly 12 percent increase over 2007 -- to 204 pantries and soup kitchens in Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Niagara counties.

The Food Bank's member agencies are "just getting more and more people coming through their doors who qualify for food," said Michael Billoni, Food Bank spokesman.

"We're always in need of food," said Billoni. "We just wonder where the next shipment's going to come from."

At St. Vincent de Paul on Main Street, the Food Bank's largest client, hungry residents formed a line outside to get a seat in the dining room, which opens for lunch at 11 a.m. five days a week.

Tuesday's menu featured a Buffalo version of the famous Rochester "garbage plate," a concoction of baked beans, hot dogs, home fries and onions -- and baked goods for dessert.

MacPherson anticipates even more diners as the snow falls.

"If they've got to pay their National Grid bill, it's just going to increase my numbers here," he said.

The 1,500 per month growth in meals served "was stunning to us," said Mark Zirnheld, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. "The food pantry requests are increasing as well."

Among the visitors are more children on weekends, up to 30 from about a dozen in previous years, and in recent weeks, a suit-clad man with a laptop computer who was out of a job and going around to interviews downtown, said MacPherson.

The man was a former volunteer at the dining room who needed "a decent meal," said Zirnheld.

Kelly Ann Kowalski, director of Food for All and coordinator of the Network of Religious Communities pantry on Delaware Avenue, had to turn away three people who requested food Tuesday, because the cupboards were bare.

"Our demand was very high this week," she said.

Kowalski helps steer people toward food stamps in her role with Food for All, and "what I see is a lot of middle-class families calling to find out if they're eligible for food stamps, which is a whole new thing," she said.

Often, the families just miss the cutoff for eligibility -- 130 percent of the poverty level -- and she has to refer them to a food pantry.

"Even the working people are finding it hard to make it through the end of the month," said Amy Betros, who operates St. Luke's Mission of Mercy on the East Side. "It's just a wider variety of people."

The mission has been serving about 700 lunches and dinners per day since its new kitchen opened in August. Volunteers also prepare and hand out about 220 sandwiches a day after hours.

The meals run about $2,500 per week, and Betros worries about keeping up if the need grows much more.

"The tougher it's going to get, the busier we're going to get and the less money that's going to be out there," she said.

The St. Vincent de Paul dining room typically gets good support in the late fall and early winter, which volunteers call "the feel-good season," said MacPherson.

Individuals and families stop by with turkeys and other items to donate -- usually enough food to get the agency through the winter months.

MacPherson only can hope that trend will hold.

"With the economy," he said, "who knows if those families will show up at our back door this year?"


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