by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & helves were barren and faces pensive last Friday as the St. Vincent de Paul Society's Food Pantry gave out its last jar of peanut butter and closed its doors to Spokane's hungry. A whiteboard offered a final epitaph, written in an unsteady hand: "We wish you the best in this troubled time. Thank you all that tried to help us." Then, in smaller letters: "We will miss you." The dying organization can no longer fund the pantry, and now the 5,000 families that it helped each month must appeal to the Salvation Army while the region's food banking system attempts to absorb the impact from the closure.

"It hurts," says SVDP's operations manager Bob Henjum. "I've done a lot of things in life, but there's nothing more satisfying than what we do here." The food bank had been a community hub and resource for thousands of Spokane's needy since the 1970s, and when it came time to say goodbye, tears rolled down cheeks.

"We're sorry to see this one go," says Ron Sauer, a volunteer from the Southside Food Pantry who was helping at SVDP during the final hours. "These guys do more in one day than we do in a month." In 2007, St. Vincent's helped 61,000 people with food as well as rent and utility assistance. The food bank was the largest among 21 outlets organized by Second Harvest in the city of Spokane, handling about one third of the volume.

The society's thrift stores once supported the food bank, but according to executive director Adrienne Brownlow, the society didn't take advice to relocate the stores to make them competitive. They went under. "You go to East Trent [Avenue] to buy an industrial pump or a tractor, not to go shopping," agrees SVDP's board president Michael Cain. "Our decline was gradual, over time. Various market factors overtook us, and we were simultaneously failing to attract new members," he says. "We have only one member in the whole society under age 40."

"The society pretty much wore itself out by years and years of never wanting to change anything," Brownlow says. "It has not attracted younger membership, and what we need are lots of young members who are energetic and full of ideas." The waning society will continue to operate on a much smaller scale throughout individual parishes, now that the food pantry is gone.

Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest, says his network serves about 48,000 people a week in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Based on data collected by Second Harvest for more than 21 years, Clark says that 10 percent of Spokane County's food bank patrons are seniors, 40 percent are children and the rest are mostly "working poor" adults. "It's a very resource-poor system," Clark says, "so we do the best we can to make those resources stretch." Second Harvest receives government and private contributions, both of which are down from previous years.

"We went to the Salvation Army to take the lion's share of what St. Vincent's was doing," Clark says. "They immediately stepped up to the plate and are working hand in hand with us to make sure there's no gap in service." The Salvation Army is upping its staff and preparing to triple its food banking services in March and possibly beyond, says development associate Christy Markham. The organization is hoping to provide service for as many as 4,000 families, but the long-term plan is to redirect SVDP's former clients to local neighborhood food banks.

The staff at SVDP is skeptical that the Salvation Army and other local food banks will be prepared. "I don't think they have a clue," Brownlow says. "Wait five or six weeks, and it will be like a wave into every agency in town."

Asked what the closing of St. Vincent's means to him, long-time client Cliff Brown despondently says, "Everything. That's why I'm here at the end of the month - I have no groceries, no nothin'. Financially, I'm strapped. This place has been here for me and my family for years."

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