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Better economy not seen at area food pantries

Better economy not seen at area food pantries

The deluge of need that began with the onset of the Great Recession of 2008 has not abated, even as
Better economy not seen at area food pantries
Volunteer Carole Merill-Mazurek checks in a client Wednesday at the Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry.

It’s a little after 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and the lobby of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry food pantry is packed.

But the doors aren’t already locked, which means it has not reached full capacity and people have to wait just to get inside. That makes this day somewhat different.

“This is a lull,” Deputy Director Shelly Ford said with a smile. “If you came yesterday ... woooo.”

Angelica Charboneau, a 23-year-old single mother, is getting diapers for her toddler and a milk card before hustling off to work. She signs up people for government phones on commission at a rate of $10 per signup, eight hours a day or longer, six days a week. The Schenectady woman figures she makes maybe a couple hundred dollars a week.

“I do what I got to do,” said Charboneau, who supplements her income with government services, in addition to what the food pantry provides. “I just need a job. I’ve been looking for two years. I’ll work anything. I work hard now.”

The improving economic numbers on the national ledger don’t add up for everyone — especially those at the bottom rungs of the workforce. Many of those people end up at area food pantries and other service providers overwhelmed with clients. The deluge of need that began with the onset of the Great Recession of 2008 has not abated, even as economic indicators point to an overall recovery.

“[T]he unemployment rate is falling as fast as at any point in the last 30 years, and the economy is on pace for its best year of job growth since the late 1990s,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote Nov. 7 on the White House blog. “The private sector has added 10.6 million jobs over 56 straight months of job growth, extending the longest streak on record.”

The numbers are deceiving, say those serving those in need.

“The recovery is not broadly shared,” said the Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of SICM, which operates a variety of services in addition to the food pantry. “We have a lot of people who are working poor. Working poor is a terrible term; years ago, there was no such thing as working poor.”

Workers and volunteers serving these people hear the gut-wrenching stories, often unsolicited.

“They are working and trying, but they just can’t afford to clothe their kids on what they are making or feed them, so they come here for clothes and across the street for food,” said Donna Hatley, assistant director of Noah’s Attic Thrift Shop at Christ Episcopal Church in Ballston Spa, which hands out free clothes and runs a food pantry.

“I go home in tears sometimes,” Hatley continued. “You don’t ask them, but they feel the need to tell us. One man got laid off. He was in his 50s. He said ‘Where am I going to get a job?’ ”

The number of food pantries served by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham has risen 22 percent since 2009, as more local providers once able to meet their community’s needs had to reach outside for help. Today, the distribution center serves 460 pantries, 83 soup kitchens and 55 emergency homeless shelters in 23 counties stretching from Canada to Pennsylvania. The food bank disperses 32 million pounds of goods, mostly food, every year.

“It increased tremendously after the recession hit, and it ... stayed very high,” food bank Executive Director Mark Quandt said.

Even amid good overall economic numbers nationally, Furman and the White House acknowledged “more must be done to create jobs for those still searching for work and ensure that those who are working see the strengthening economy translate into rising wages.”

That conversion hasn’t happened for those at the bottom of the workforce. From 2008-13, when the federal Consumer Price Index increased by about 12.5 percent, average wages in the Capital Region rose 11.3 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. In the accommodation and food-service industries, which includes jobs such as maids and fast-food workers, wages rose 7.5 percent over those five years. In the retail sector, wage stagnation was worse, with only a 5.5-percent increase.

“The economy is definitely better than 2008-2009, but wages were not what they were,” Quandt said. “And the poor are always the last to benefit from a recovery.”

Overall, local private-sector jobs are slightly up since 2008, but because of a significant downturn in public sector employment, the Capital Region shed more than 7,000 total jobs, or nearly 1.5 percent, from 2008-13.

“We’ve been at record-high levels for private-sector jobs in the Capital Region for several years now,” state labor analyst James Ross said. “But if you count government jobs, we are still down.”

Norman Griffin is a retired elementary school principal in his second year as president of the Galway Food Pantry. The organization is the Greater Galway Community Services Association, but the demands and needs of the food pantry pretty much take up all the nonprofit’s time and resources. They are open Thursdays and serve 135 families. Every week, Griffin said, one to three new families sign up. The math is daunting.

The clients run the gamut, from the homeless and those recently out of work to the long-term unemployed, the working poor and single-parent households. Like many pantries, families can come once a month for big pickups.

“For the lower class and the working poor, I hear of hours being cut,” he said. “When you are in the private sector, you can be here one day, gone the next. A lot are working for minimum wage or just above it.”

Jessica Ellis turns 59 this month and is seven years removed from being laid off as a cashier at St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady. She is in training at Experience Works, which helps those 55 and older re-establish themselves in the workplace. She gets a minimum-wage stipend but needs the food pantry to get by as she reacquires skills to get back into the workforce.

“Everything is going up in the world,” she said. “A minimum-wage job will not cut it.”

The stories these pantry officials hear are diverse, but many share a common thread: A dollar that once could be stretched does not meet basic needs anymore for those at the bottom tier of the working class.

“It’s just not enough,” said Jim Bornheim, director of the Christ Episcopal Church Food Pantry, which serves 220 families per month. “They have a minimum-wage job, and it just doesn’t provide them everything for their family.”

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