People who once helped food pantries now turn to them for help as recession worsens

May 11, 2009

Some who helped food banks now need help themselves Tarrant county pantries are seeing increasing numbers of first-time applicants
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frequent trips to Las Vegas, a 4,500-square-foot home and a nanny for her children were all part of Tammy Mikalauskas’ life not long ago. She had so much that she regularly contributed to GRACE, a charity in Grapevine.

Now GRACE is giving her food and other items to help her make ends meet.

“I am poor, poor, poor right now. I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the next bill,” said Mikalauskas, sitting in a rented house in Colleyville that’s just a fraction of the size of her previous home.

Going through a divorce, working three jobs and piecing together aid from different sources, Mikalauskas is struggling to provide for her four children.

Food pantries throughout Tarrant County say they’re seeing more people like her: first-time applicants for help, some of whom donated to the pantries in better times.

Feeding America, an umbrella group of food banks nationwide, said that in a survey of 180 food banks, 99 percent said they were serving more people than they were a year ago.

Many first-time recipients of food assistance said they were making enough to get by but couldn’t continue without help when they had a major setback such as a divorce, job loss, an onslaught of medical bills or an auto accident.

A woman who recently sought help at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in White Settlement said that she and her husband, a plumber, can pay their bills but that her sister-in-law cannot. When her husband’s sister moved in and brought her five kids with her, the family had to turn to the food pantry for help.

Food bank workers loaded her shopping cart so full of food that it looked ready to tip over. But with nine children and three adults in the household, it lasted only three days.

Brenda, who wanted to give only her first name, said the family is struggling to make that assistance a one-time donation. “I don’t want to go unless we really need to.”

At the food pantry of the Hope Center, a Fort Worth church, two men said they worked 40 hours a week or more in warehouses but were laid off in the last year.

Another new client said her husband could not keep making payments on his truck, so he lost his job hauling freight.

A woman who gave only her first name, Gina, went to get food at North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington for the first time Friday. She wiped tears as she told of how her husband got laid off.

Another woman at the Hope Center, Catherine, said that by moving furniture and loading trucks for a moving company, she once made enough to pay her bills. But now the slowing economy has whittled down her hours to almost nothing.

Catherine showed her most recent check stub. It was for $70.98. “I’ve gone five days without work at a time, and I’m so scared I’m not going to have a job,” she said. “I’m hurting, I’m hurting bad.”

Jo Ann Reyes, president of the Hope Center, said she’s buying triple the food from the Tarrant Area Food Bank that she was just four months ago.

Bill White, director of the food pantry at St. Peter’s, flipped through a three-ring binder of applications to show how the number of clients has grown.

“Four years ago when I started, we had only one 2-inch-thick book. Now we have two 3-inch books,” White said.

He said the pantry once let people return every four weeks for food. That changed to every six weeks — and then every eight weeks. “We just maxed out what we could do, and we don’t want to cut anybody off,” White said.

He said he gets six to 10 new clients a week.

New clients like Mikalauskas said they have drastically curtailed spending to make ends meet.

Illustrating the stark contrast of her changed lifestyle, Mikalauskas lives in a rented house dwarfed by a neighboring $2 million home. She moved into the rented home last month after living with her sister for seven months.

A dry-erase calendar near the kitchen is crammed with her schedule of three part-time jobs, activities with the kids and meetings with GRACE workers.

“There was a big pride issue that I had before I contacted GRACE,” Mikalauskas said. “I finally realized it’s OK to ask for help. Not only is it OK, but there are people out there who really want to help you.”