When Susie Bonilla was working four days a week as a waitress, she could buy groceries to feed the three adults and three children in her family.
Last month, Bonilla's schedule was reduced to one day a week. Now she goes to the food pantry at Catholic Charities.
"It's a good day today. This time there are vegetables," said Bonilla, 31, on a recent sunny morning as she loaded boxes of produce and food staples into the back of her older-model van.
Local agencies that feed the Valley's needy are seeing more of the "working poor" -- people like Bonilla with jobs whose paychecks have dwindled due to cutbacks or furloughs. One indicator: About one-third of the people seeking help each month from Catholic Charities are new clients.
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"It's staggering," said Andy Souza, a former Fresno city manager who now is chief executive officer of the Community Food Bank.
But while more people need help, donations aren't keeping pace, said Souza and leaders at Catholic Charities and The Salvation Army.
While more people are making donations, "More folks are giving smaller amounts," Souza said.
Making the best of it
At Catholic Charities, Bonilla was given three cartons of large red tomatoes, several heads of lettuce and cabbage, a couple of bunches of celery, several oranges, two bags of red grapes and some green beans.
She also got canned and packaged foods: tomato sauce, cereal, macaroni-and-cheese mix, pasta, rice, dry pinto beans and one package of frozen ground beef.
The contents of food baskets, especially produce, depend on what is on hand, said Jody Hudson, food distribution director at Catholic Charities.
The food Bonilla received isn't a supplement -- it's all she has to feed a household that includes her two children, her brother -- who does odd jobs -- his wife and child.
"This is about it," said Bonilla, who combines cooking skills with a reality check to stretch the groceries.
When the children -- ages 8, 6 and 3 -- asked why she served them a dish made from rice and coconut milk, Bonilla pulled no punches.
"I spoke to them about the situation" with her job, Bonilla said. "You can't sugar coat anything.
"It's a good lesson. It teaches you to survive," she said.
Mary Richardson, 73, and her son, Curtis Richardson, of Fresno came to Catholic Charities for the first time last week. Mary lives on Social Security retirement benefits and Curtis, 37, recently lost his job as a welder.
"Oh, wow," Mary said, looking at 24 large ripe tomatoes still boxed in packing-house cartons. They'll go into spaghetti sauce and stew, she said.
At Catholic Charities, a family of two receives 50-75 pounds of food, which is expected to last five days.
More in need
"We never turn anyone away," said Catherine Manfredo, executive director of Catholic Charities. But once the same person or family has come four times in a year, they are referred to a social worker who tries to help them find ways to help themselves.
Catholic Charities is helping 30% more families this year than in 2009, Manfredo said. And more of them, like the Richardsons, are coming for the first time.
During most of the past two years, 20% of the roughly 6,000 people the charity helped each month were new clients. But in the past four months, the number of new clients has jumped to 30%, Manfredo said.
The increased need reflects the economy for clients of Catholic Charities living in Fresno County. A family of four is bringing home on average $260 less this year: Their average annual income dropped from $7,960 in 2009 to $7,700 in 2010, Manfredo said.
Local charities are feeding thousands more people this year than in 2009:
- Catholic Charities -- serving eight Valley counties -- gave food to 21,955 families as of Oct. 31. That is nearly 7,700 more than during the same period last year, Manfredo said.
Perhaps because of the recession, organizers say, cash donations are down, though gifts of canned and packaged food are up.
At The Salvation Army, for example, donations are up this year from food drives by local churches, businesses and civic organizations, Breazeale said. But money to help people avoid eviction and pay utilities is down.
At the Community Food Bank, some larger donations from family foundations or businesses usually made in November or December are slower in arriving this year, Souza said.
While donations are flagging, agencies can stretch their dollars with in-kind donations -- clothing or services provided that the agency doesn't have to spend money on -- and buying below cost.
When the Community Food Bank buys food from Feeding America, a national organization of food banks, it can turn every $1 cash donation into $8 worth of food, Souza said.
In the face of staggering needs and fluctuating donations, agency leaders say they are committed to meeting the growing need. "Our goal is that nobody goes to bed hungry," Souza said.