by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen St. Vincent de Paul Society's food pantry closed its doors forever at the end of February, the region's network of food banks prepared for a deluge of new clients. The Salvation Army in particular stepped up its services and is now seeing close to what it expected: about three times as many families looking for help.

"I expect it to go up," says Christy Markham, speaking for the Salvation Army. "Not just from St. Vincent's closing, but with the way gas prices are increasing." The majority of food bank clients are the working poor and their children, and they are now paying $4 per gallon of gas to get to work and back, just like everyone else. "So, families that haven't needed a food bank before -- we expect to be seeing more of them," Markham says. She also says that not all of St. Vincent's former clients have made their way back into the system. Some who were helped on a more episodic basis may still be discovering that their food pantry is gone.

With the rising cost of groceries, food stamps aren't stretching as far for these families, either.

"I live on a fixed income and I have to get food stamps, but they don't last the whole month," says Tammy Syers, a monthly client of the Salvation Army's food bank. She has four children still living at home, two of whom are teenagers with big appetites.

"By the end of the month, we're down to nothing," she says. Syers' husband is currently hospitalized and unable to work. Before the family moved to Spokane from Michigan about three years ago, they both worked to make ends meet, shunning food stamps and "charity" in favor of self reliance. Times have gotten hard, however, and pride doesn't put food on the table. They've had to adjust.

In Spokane County, 22,164 families relied on food stamps totaling $4,537,595 in value during May 2007, according to Pete Casimir, administrator of the Spokane Valley Community Service Office. As of May this year, that number had crept up to 22,806 families requiring $4,966,091 in assistance. "We've never quite cracked the $5 million mark, but it looks like we're going to get there pretty soon," Casimir says.

As headlines around the globe continue to scream about oil companies raking in record profits, the price at the pump also makes it harder for those trying to help.

"I'm pretty confident that it's a huge burden for low-income families trying to make it to work," says Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest. "But in our system, it's having a huge impact because one of our biggest expenses is moving donated food around." Clark says they're currently spending more than $4,000 per week on diesel and freight.

"Donated food may come from anywhere in the country, though we're opting out of a lot of donations because of freight costs," he says. Donations from the Midwest are out. The cost to truck a load of donated food from central California has more than doubled, he says. "That's more than a private charity can absorb, because we're not passing that on to anyone. We have to raise the dollars to make it happen."

Clark says he was informed recently by Grocery Manufacturers of America -- an industry advocacy group based in Washington D.C. -- that food prices will increase at least 7.5 percent to 8 percent per year over the next five years. Certain staples such as eggs, milk and meat products are increasing more rapidly.

"Things as remote as the growing middle class in India and China are driving up demand for meat products, which are grain fed," Clark says, "which is all based on oil in the end. ... The GMA's membership is pretty concerned about what it costs to make food." As food manufacturers cinch down on costs, it is likely that donations of excess food will dwindle.

As a result of these converging factors, Clark expects an increased demand upon relief organizations like Second Harvest at a time when resources are being spread thinner and thinner. "It creates a lot of tension and frustration on the part of the good people who want to do this work," he says.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
  • or