More people seek help to put food on the table

  • Mike Nicholls, left, and Chuck Antonetti bag apples and oranges with other CVS managers from the area as they volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank on Monday, December 12, 2011.

At a food distribution site in Boyes Hot Springs, 164 people came for a box of free food two weeks ago, a nearly 27 percent increase over previous weeks at the Catholic Charities site.

It's a scene playing out across Sonoma County as more people turn to charitable organizations for food. At the same time, donations — of both food and money — are well below last year, in some cases as much as 30 percent lower than in 2010.

"We are definitely seeing more people in need," said Billy Bartz, food drive and events coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Three years ago, the Redwood Empire Food Bank provided emergency food assistance to 60,000 people in Sonoma County every month. This year, that number has spiked to 78,000 — about 34,000 of whom are children, Bartz said.

"It's almost one out of six (Sonoma County residents) who are food insecure," he said. "We are kind of this 911 for people that are in need."

While demand is skyrocketing, donations are off 30 percent for the Winter Food Funds Drive, the food bank's largest fund drive of the year. The food bank goal is $225,000 and 225,000 pounds of food by Jan. 31, Bartz said.

Last year, the food bank surpassed its goal of $165,000 and eventually pulled in nearly $220,000 during the drive, according to Bartz.

There are more individual canned food drives being held in support of the food bank this year, but the pounds of food being donated remain flat.

It's unclear why the decline in giving has been so steep.

The ripple effect of the fall-off in support is felt across the county, as the food bank partners with 149 agencies to distribute about 13 million pounds of food annually to those who are "food insecure."

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