Richard and Sandy Keith came to the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at Assumption Chapel as first-timers Thursday.
Richard gets disability benefits because of heart attacks a decade ago; Sandy is seeking benefits because of lung and heart disease. The couple is having trouble making ends meet, not even having enough to get Richard's ninth-grade son new clothing.
The suddenly difficult economy has boiled away all surplus for many local families, forcing them to seek supplemental sustenance at one of Blair County's nine food pantries.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
Volunteers Marjorie Hoffman (left) and Bob Mountain fill an order for a family of eight Friday afternoon at the Altoona Food Bank. The sudden economic downturn has forced many people to seek assistance from area food pantries for the first time.
It may seem like a wrenching experience, but for the Keiths, "it's not that difficult because we need it," Sandy said.
St. Vincent's, the largest pantry in the county and among the seven largest in the state, has served 6,459 families this year through September - 20 percent more than during the same period last year.
The Altoona Food Bank at the Community Action Agency building in Altoona served 259 families in September, 10 percent more than it averaged during the first three months of this year.
Locations and hours for food banks in Blair County:
Altoona Food Bank, 2100 Sixth Ave.
9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday
American Rescue Workers Food Bank, 811 Scotch Valley Road, Hollidaysburg
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday
Claysburg Food Bank, Church of the Brethren, Bedford Street, Claysburg
9 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday; 6 to 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month
The Father's House, 2331 Beale Ave.
6 to 8 p.m. Monday, noon to 2 p.m. Thursday and 9:15 a.m. to noon Saturday
Sacred Heart Food Bank, 511 20th St.
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday
Salvation Army Food Bank, 1813 Sixth Ave.
1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, Assumption Chapel, 1523 Adams Ave.
8 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday
Tyrone Food Bank, 1200 Logan Ave., Tyrone
9 to 10:30 a.m. Thursday
Williamsburg Food Bank, 219 Plum St., Williamsburg
1:30 to 3 p.m. Thursday
The Claysburg Food Bank has been serving almost double the previous number of families since July, this month serving almost 200.
The Tyrone Food Bank was serving 10 to 15 families a week until July, when the average jumped to almost 20.
Sacred Heart Food Bank in Altoona, which serves about 50 families a month, is seeing more new cases, and The Father's House on Beale Avenue also has seen increasing demand.
Many families seeking help now were "marginal," barely able to make it, but with fuel and food price increases, they have slipped into the needy category, said Pastor Jim Neatrour, administrator of the Claysburg Food Bank.
"They have a lot more month at the end of their money," he said.
One Claysburg-area widow has $627 a month coming in, but she can't buy all her medications and groceries while still covering the $300 minimum order for oil, Neatrour said.
A recent decrease in gas prices has helped, but not enough to make up for the long-developing problems, he said.
Clients at the Father's House are coming for help at "feasting holidays" and when seasonal demands such as school clothing strain their budget, pantry Director Dick Weber said.
At St. Vincent's pantry, young painting contractor Bobby Stewart showed up Thursday for the second or third time this year because he's been out of work the last month and a half. He said the box and bag of food from the pantry "does the trick, pretty much" to get him through.
Thomas Vetakis can't do much on $60 a month in food stamps and Social Security from his retirement eight years ago as a general assembler for General Cable. The pantry is "an important part of our lifestyle" for him and his wife, he said.
It doesn't hurt his pride at all, as the people at the pantry are "wonderful," he said.
Needy people tend to prefer food pantries over the food stamp office because there's less stigma and the workers tend to be nicer, said Suzanne McDevitt, a professor at Edinboro University who has studied the pantries.
At St. Vincent's on Thursday, it was sunny literally and figuratively - busy, cheerful and labor-intensive.
Workers brought boxes of product on a dolly down the steps to the basement, prepackaged boxes for various-size families, processed clients using color-coded case cards, verified incomes, wrote food slips and sent clients to pick up boxes and bags with about seven days' worth of nutritionally balanced groceries, based on advice from Penn State Cooperative Extension.
It takes at least 17 volunteers to run distribution two mornings a week, logistics director Tom Strunk said.
"All the spokes have to be in the wheel," he said.
Ninety percent of the food served at St. Vincent's is donated, and the biggest portion comes from the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Strunk said. The pantry sends a truck to pick it up when manufacturers who send it there on consignment want to clear out their remainders as they approach the sell-by date, Strunk said. The stores won't accept products with fewer than 10 days left, he said.
The pantry also gets baked goods from Sam's Club and has worked out a deal to get meat and deli items, which the store pulls before they reach 48 hours in the display case, he said. The pantry will freeze those products so they'll keep.
The pantry also gets goods from Martin's, Weis, Giant Eagle, Krispy Kreme, U.S. Foodservice, Kunzler & Co., DelGrosso's, Lee Food Service, Concept Foods and Panera Bread, according to Strunk and St. Vincent's administrative director Don Belsey.
Pantries' operations are ''wildly different,'' McDevitt said. Despite the kindness of most pantry workers, asking for food from them is clearly a ''real step down in dignity'' for clients, she said.
Strunk sensed exactly that when he started 11 years ago at St. Vincent's and found acquaintances who came as clients tended to be reserved.
Conscious of their dignity, he doesn't put up with staffers who are actively judgmental. Nevertheless, the pantry must ask for evidence such as pay stubs or Social Security receipts to verify income eligibility, he said.
Statewide, the threshold is 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,800 for a family of four.
That confirms eligibility for some who are ineligible for food stamps, which require recipients to earn no more than 120 percent of the poverty level, McDevitt said.
The Holy Spirit seems to watch over St. Vincent's, Strunk said. If food is running low, it always seems ''we suddenly get a phone call,'' Belsey said. ''It's like we're plugged directly into God.''
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.