With Thanksgiving a month away, the Food Bank of Western New York, which distributes food to pantries in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, is making a push for more turkeys.
“This year our goal is to collect 6,000 turkeys,” said Stephanie Lawson, youth coordinator for the Food Bank of Western New York. “We want to fill those refrigerators with leftovers. ... Budgets get especially tight when kids are off school and not receiving those school lunches.”
The Food Bank, which has 330 member agencies throughout the region, counts a record 106,000 people served as of June this year. The numbers follow 2013 census data released last month that show Buffalo’s poverty rate rising to 31.4 percent, up from 30.9 in 2012.
But people seeking food assistance live beyond the city’s borders, Lawson said.
“It’s in our suburbs. It’s in affluent schools. It’s in communities with expensive cars,” she said, citing job losses and threatened closing of the ConAgra food processing plants in the Dunkirk-Fredonia area. “Sometimes it’s parents who are living paycheck to paycheck, and dad just lost his six-figure job.”
In the last three months, people coming for free breakfasts went from 10 a morning to 60 at the soup kitchen at the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry in Dunkirk.
The ministry opened a new food pantry in Fredonia in July to help meet a demand that includes former ConAgra workers.
“We’ve just seen a real increase of the working poor,” said Kathleen G. Peterson, the ministry’s executive director.
Next month, when her agency begins accepting applications for free baskets of Thanksgiving dinners, she expects at least 300 instead of last year’s 242 requests.
Like Peterson, Marylou Borowiak, president and chief executive officer of the Food Bank, has been struck by the number of working people coming for food: Thirty-nine percent of adults seeking help this past year were employed.
“You gotta choose. ... It’s the old ‘heat versus eat,’ ” she said.
An average of 106,000 people comes to the Food Bank each month for assistance.
The number requesting help varies from month to month, which is a good sign that some are finding solutions.
“It’s not the same 106,000 every month,” she said. “They use us when they need us.”
Its member soup kitchens used to be busiest during the holidays and winter months. Now, demand is up during summer, too, when free lunches aren’t being served at school, said Borowiak.
“We have to feed these families 365 days a year,” she said. “Hunger is an issue every day.”
While the Food Bank’s Buffalo warehouse has thousands of chickens in stock right now to help with the Thanksgiving dinners, turkeys are in demand and so much more expensive.
“We have maybe less than 100 turkeys,” Borowiak said.
“We cannot afford to purchase turkeys. We need donated turkeys ... We will ensure that if you get us that turkey by the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we will get it to a family in need.”
Johnnie Holt runs the City Cafe Soup Kitchen of Durham Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, which serves 200 lunches a day Monday through Friday out of a 200 E. Eagle St. location.
She said demand for the service has been steady over the years, without a noticeable increase or decrease in traffic.
“We always manage to have enough food. We’ve been fortunate,” she said.
The soup kitchen relies largely on the Food Bank for its food, she said. But like others, Holt encourages people to donate turkeys.
“Turkeys are always welcome anytime of year because, like chicken, it can go so far – as turkey breast, soup or sandwiches,” she said. “And it’s not as expensive as other meats.”