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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."

"Donations for food, they haven't quite kept pace with the demand," said Mike Johnson, chief operating officer at the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) in Petaluma.

"Folks are still very much impacted by the economy and are watching their finances very carefully and it's really tough out there," he said. "It hasn't been a catastrophic fall-off, but it's enough to cause us concern."

At the Meals on Wheels program provided by the Council on Aging, nearly 50 percent of clients are considered "extremely low income," and are likely living on Social Security alone, according to Marrianne McBride, the council's president.

"They are definitely getting poorer," she said.

In 2005, client donations on a per-meal basis were $1.65 of the $4 it cost to provide the service, McBride said. This summer, that number had fallen to 92 cents and is likely to fall further in the winter months when clients struggle to pay heating bills, she said.

A recent client survey found that 20 percent of those who responded count on their one Meals on Wheels meal for at least 75 percent of their daily food consumption. Nearly two-thirds said the meal — intended to represent 33 percent of a client's daily nutritional needs — was actually being stretched to provide at least 50 percent of a person's daily food intake.

"It just gives you an indication of how much people are relying on it," McBride said.

For Catholic Charities, financial donations are down 30 percent this season and food contributions are 20 percent lower than last year, according to Betsy Timm, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities.

At rural distribution sites where Catholic Charities provides staple products as well as fresh produce, some operators will announce hours of operation but add the caveat "or until the food runs out."

"They will start to make smaller boxes in some cases," she said.

The impact will really be felt county wide in the early months of 2012, Bartz said, because the winter drive is the largest annual push for funds and food.

"The holiday season is when people really are thinking about giving," he said. "So if the donations don't come in now, (early 2012) is when we will see the effects of what is happening."

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