MONROE -- At meal time in Monroe County, the numbers are telling.
Six years ago when the God Works Family Soup Kitchen was created, about 75 people came for meals served at one church.
The soup kitchen has expanded, and each week now, God Works serves meals to 1,000 people at 14 churches across Monroe County.
Total plates served so far: 300,000.
Soup kitchens, food pantries, and other similar outreach efforts in several suburban areas in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are providing services to growing numbers of people, and some agencies are seeing record numbers, in large part because of the poor economy.
In the city of Sylvania, a food distribution program has experienced a 33 percent jump in the last three years and now provides groceries to 6,200 people.
Food assistance programs are struggling to stretch resources, and at least one area food pantry has cut its services because demand is up and donations are down.
In Monroe County, "We do have quite a few more people than in the past," said Jeff Weaver, director of God Works.
He started the program after he decided he wanted to do something to help people who would welcome a free meal from time to time.
Mr. Weaver, of Monroe, obtained permission from his home church to serve meals once a week there and has received assistance from 10,000 volunteers and other supporters of the soup kitchen project since it began.
There are no paid employees. "We are all volunteers," Mr. Weaver said.
Fourteen "point people" are in charge of meals at the 14 sites, he said.
Mr. Weaver and others involved in food-distribution programs predict numbers will continue to increase, particularly as winter approaches. "More people will need help," he said, such as those who have to figure out how to pay high utility bills during the colder months. "We try to help everybody we can," he said.
Some food assistance programs are eligibility based, but God Works has no such requirements. "We seat anyone who comes in and sits down. You can tell they are hungry people and they came to get a meal," Mr. Weaver said.
As in other food outreach programs, God Works participants primarily are families -- moms, dads, children, grandparents, and other relatives who come in together for a meal. "It is not unusual for us to run out of highchairs," Mr. Weaver said.
The notion that mostly single men with alcohol addiction are the ones who seek out meals at soup kitchens is wrong, he said.
God Works, a nonprofit organization, receives donations of food from "all over" the county, he said, and no government money is received.
Private donations support the project as well. Donations can be sent to God Works Family Soup Kitchen, P.O. Box 962, Monroe, MI, 48161.
Mary Glover-Booher, case manager and office manager of the Temperance service center of the Salvation Army of Monroe County, said "there is an increased need" in the county, noticeable at food pantries, including the one at the Temperance service center.
"Hunger knows no boundaries," Ms. Glover-Booher said. "We have to eat. It is a basic human need."
In addition to colder months coming up, triggering an increase in demand for food assistance, a change in Michigan's cash assistance program "is going to impact a lot of people," she said, and that could bump up the demand further.
Meetings and strategy sessions are being held to try to come up with plans for handling the likely increase in demand for services from people who lack funds to pay food, clothing, and housing bills, she said.
The Salvation Army pantry will provide a person in need with four food orders a year, and each food order is meant to last a month.
In between food orders, "a lot of meal planning goes on" as families figure out how to stretch resources, Ms. Glover-Booher said.
Because of the growing need, agencies are reaching out to find additional sources of donations, both money and food.
"We are always looking for donations," she said. "We try to stretch our resources and help as many people as we can."