Soup kitchens filling up

People in Anchorage are asking for more help with food costs

Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2008

ANCHORAGE - They're seeing new faces in line at the Downtown Soup Kitchen.

Families. Moms.

A few blocks away, Bean's Cafe is serving more free meals. A 33 percent increase in May, compared to the same time last year.

A local pantry that delivers food to needy families recently asked the Food Bank of Alaska to stop sending people its way.

"They aren't able to meet the needs," said Food Bank development manager Amy DeBruhl.

Maybe it's the scary gas prices or the towering grocery bills. Maybe something else. But this year people in Anchorage are asking for more help filling their plates and stomachs.

"We are definitely seeing a lot more of the working poor, rather than the unemployed," said Jennifer Nieves, program director for St. Francis House, a food bank run by Catholic Social Services.

Last week the pantry cut back on the amount of beans and rice it gives to individual visitors who aren't picking up food for an entire family.

"We're just trying to make it a little more fair, make it stretch a little farther," she said.

Dozens of people lined up in the alley outside the Downtown Soup Kitchen on Fourth Avenue on Thursday. Young volunteers passed Styrofoam cups of thick salmon noodle soup through the pick-up window.

"Hello. Would you like a sandwich too?"

A man in a ball cap stuck his head in another window, inspecting the snacks.

"Got any more potato chips?"

The kitchen - owned by a nonprofit affiliated with ChangePoint Church - prepares roughly 40 gallons of soup a day, five days a week in what looks from the street like another old Anchorage home. Inside, cooks squeeze past each other on the narrow stairs, and a "Smile, God Loves You" bumper sticker hangs above a flier advertising tuberculosis screening on the bulletin board.

Some of the people eating said the crowd looks no different than last year. Lots of familiar faces.

But some volunteers have noticed a change.

"We would always have an occasional mom come in with some kids or something like that," said board vice president Marty Turnbow. But now strollers and mothers carrying babies arrive on a regular basis.

Gabriel Wilburn, a commercial diver hoping to work on oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea or a natural gas pipeline project, brought his 3-year-old son to the kitchen Thursday.

"It was a nice sunny day. I forgot to pack a lunch for my son, so it was really convenient," he said. "We're underemployed at the moment, so you know it helps out with the finances."

A volunteer brought his boy some yogurt. After lunch, Wilburn planned to hit the job center and send out a few resumes.

The cost of feeding a family in Anchorage jumped 14 percent from March 2007 to March 2008, according to a survey by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

Much of that increase came in the first three months of the year. Meantime, fuel prices have skyrocketed - which has a ripple effect on the price of goods flown and shipped into the state. Last year's $3 gallon of gas seems like a bargain compared to the teeth-clenching $4 drivers pay now.

People are making hard choices, said DeBruhl, the Food Bank development manager.

"Do they pay for a tank of gas to get to work, or do they pay for food?" she said.

The Food Bank provides about half a million pounds of food a year, supplying local soup kitchens and using a refurbished beer truck to deliver refrigerated goods to hubs around town.

The nonprofit has seen demand increase while donations remain steady. "I don't think that we're running out of food, but we know that we're not meeting the entire need," DeBruhl said.

At St. Francis House, people picked up about 22,000 pounds of food in January. That number jumped to about 31,000 pounds in May.

Part of that increase could be families picking up more food for kids who are now on summer break and no longer eating free breakfast or lunch at school.

Still, the numbers at Bean's have increased in each of the past two months compared to the same time last year. People who used to show up when money ran out toward the end of the month are now appearing at the kitchen more than a week earlier.

Cost of living increases are magnified in rural Alaska - and part of the demand for social services could come from people trying to make it in Anchorage after moving here from the Bush.

Officials at Bean's say a combination of such factors is likely pushing demand.

"I think people at the lower end of the scale are just harder hit all the way around," said social services director Maggie Carey.

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