Food Banks and Shelters See Increasing Demand From Working Families and Underemployed

As the economy continues to spiral downward with no end in sight, food banks and shelters across the country are seeing a major increase in demand, especially from working families. “People who used to volunteer are now in need of services,” says Brian Higgins, spokesman for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in California. “The old notion of food banks distributing food expressly to the homelessly is gone. That’s archaic. I’m working with a client family that’s been doing media for us. Both parents are working in the automotive industry. They’ve got three small kids. A full-time job now is $8 an hour. That’s poverty. You can’t survive on it.”

According to the Working Poor Families Project, nearly one in three working families is struggling to make ends meet because they’re stuck in low-wage jobs with no benefits.

The report says, “Although low-income working families remain mostly invisible to policymakers, these families are comprised of workers who form the backbone of our economy: working the cash registers, keeping our homes and businesses clean, preparing our food, and helping care for our children and elderly relatives. During these grave economic times, policymakers must choose to invest in these low-income workers and their families.”

The reality is, policymakers continue to invest in the ultra-rich and the military-industrial complex, not the working poor and social service organizations that are doing whatever it takes to ensure families are fed, clothed, and housed. The recent tax cut bill will give another $70 billion in yearly tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy, and the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a $725 billion military spending bill – the largest in U.S. history – with no debate and hardly any media coverage. This is not sustainable.

Last year, the Alameda food bank handed out 19 million pounds of food. “In 2009, we honestly thought, ‘This is it.’ We’ve spiked. It cannot get anymore ludicrous than this,” says Higgins. “We keep track by months for emergency food. This past month blew all previous records away for the past 25 years.”

Demand at the Alameda food bank is up 38 percent this year. “Our mission is to go out of business,” says Higgins. “We’re going in completely the opposite direction.”

Because demand is so high, the food bank, unlike most nonprofits, is actually hiring and expanding with a 44,000 square-foot warehouse to use for sorting food and managing volunteers.

But, most nonprofits are struggling to survive, especially small organizations in rural areas. According to the United Way, over half of California’s nonprofits saw their revenues decline in 2009, one-quarter had to eliminate service, almost half have increased their use of volunteers, and one-third had to lay off paid employees.

“A phrase that I hear a lot from nonprofits is, ‘We just gotta hang on. We have to keep our skeletal staff together,’” says Aimee Durfee, vice president of community investments at the United Way.

Durfee says mentoring programs, childcare programs, and shelters are shutting down completely. “If systemic change is going to happen, it has to be at the policy level. We almost need another war on poverty. It happened half a century ago where we actually were able to address poverty in a very fundamental way and we’ve got to go there again.”

Click here to listen to Your Call’s radio show about how non-profit social service providers are managing to survive.


Brian Higgins, spokesperson for the Alameda County Community Food Bank

Aimee Durfee, vice president of community investments at United Way

Michael Braude, director of finance and administration at the San Francisco Food Bank

Susan Olson, executive director of Pajaro Valley Shelter Services in Watsonville, CA


SF Food Banks Feeds 200,000 People/Year

Tour of the SF Food Bank – 1 in 5 San Franciscans Need Food Assistance

Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”