Walt Wilkerson, a volunteer at Sylvania Area Family Services, organizes food into a cart to distribute to clients of the agency's assistance program.
Hungry for help, growing numbers of Sylvania-area residents are seeking assistance to put food on their tables.
In the last three years, the Sylvania Area Family Services’ food-distribution program has experienced a 33 percent increase in the number of clients served.
Soup kitchens, food pantries, and other similar outreach efforts in several suburban areas in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan have been tracking higher numbers of participants.
As food-distribution programs assist a record number of people, their resources are being strained, and at least one Toledo-area food pantry has cut its services because donations are down.
So far this year at Sylvania Area Family Services, 6,200 individuals have received food assistance.
“That is a pretty significant number of people coming through our doors just for food distribution,” said Jason Robertson, executive director.
That figure is up from 5,500 in 2010 and about 4,500 in 2009, he said.
“We are seeing folks we have never seen before,” he said.
Several area churches have stepped up their involvement over the years, he said, and some have started their own food pantries or have been making significant donations.
Sylvania Area Family Services offers three food programs, including a weekly Harvest program open to residents in the Sylvania Schools district who meet eligibility guidelines, a government commodities program open to anyone in Lucas County who qualifies, and an emergency food distribution program open to county residents.
“We have been seeing a lot of people. Obviously with the economy, people are losing their jobs or a spouse is losing a job. What we are seeing are folks we have never seen before,” Mr. Robertson said, noting that numbers probably would be higher but “a lot of people do not know where to look for help. There probably are a great many more who do not know we exist or do not know about our services, or sometimes it is a pride issue.”
Sylvania Area Family Services is experiencing an increase in referrals from churches.
“Churches by and large are seeing an increase and forwarding them in our direction. There is need everywhere. Poverty knows no boundaries. Sylvania has the same issues as Toledo” and other areas, he said.
“Probably we see most often now folks who had a dual income and all of a sudden lost a job, or worked at Jeep or wherever making decent money, and they find themselves with one income. Or the elderly, because of the cost of medications and the cost of health care, having to supplement their food.”
Too, in recent years more people who are not native speakers of English are coming in for services, he said.
With four refrigerators and a freezer on site, the family services program can provide fresh and frozen foods, including produce donated by local businesses. “We get great support from area businesses,” Mr. Robertson said.
He said he is approaching more businesses in an effort to bring in more donations to meet the need.
A main focus is to educate the community that although there is a big push for holiday food distribution programs, the need is ongoing. “Last year we did struggle a little with donations coming in,” he said, and with the numbers up, “we need more than that this year.”
The community provides “great support,” he said, and letters are being sent out to spread the word about the need for additional donations. He also is spending time talking with members of civic organizations to “spread the word about what we are doing and how it is helping out others.”
Just across the state line in Monroe County, the numbers also are telling.
Six years ago when the God Works Family Soup Kitchen was created, about 75 people came for meals served at one church.
To meet a growing need, 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 of food served so far: 300,000.
“We do have quite a few more people than in the past,” said Jeff Weaver, director of God Works.
He and others who are involved in soup kitchens or other food-distribution programs anticipate that the numbers will continue to rise.
“More people will need help,” Mr. Weaver 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.