PHOENIX // For the past two months, Eddie Gadson has handed out crate after plastic crate of groceries. What was once a trickle of people coming to the Phoenix Rescue Mission for food handouts has turned into a steady stream. If the numbers continue climbing, Mr Gadson worries the mission could run out of food. It is a concern that has started keeping him up at night.
"The food that came in last week is gone already," he said, pointing at empty warehouse shelves. "I am worried about how we will keep them full." The Arizona capital, which this decade enjoyed some of the fastest growth in the United States, has been particularly hard hit by the country's economic downturn. Home prices have plunged 31 per cent in the past 12 months, the most severe drop in a major US city. There have been more than 30,000 foreclosures, and unemployment has climbed to just below the national average of 6.1 per cent.
It is a widening dilemma that economists said could be one of the most urgent tasks awaiting Barack Obama, the president-elect: how to provide relief for low- and middle-income families across the US who are under increasing strain to cover their cost of living. Officials at Phoenix food banks said they are seeing more families with household incomes between US$50,000 (Dh183,000) and $80,000 coming in search of free food - trying to stretch every dollar they earn to hold on to their homes.
Rescue missions are seeing especially high numbers of elderly people. Students and recent college graduates - a group they never used to hear from - have also started visiting. But families often tell the most heartbreaking stories. "A mom came in last week and told me: 'My husband and I are both working, but we just can't make ends meet'," said Pam DiPietro, who runs the Foothills Food Bank in Cave Creek, Arizona. "The couple had cut themselves back to one meal a day, just so they could feed their two children."
According to St Mary's Food Bank Alliance, which distributes food to 675 sites that serve the hungry across Arizona, including the Phoenix Rescue Mission, requests for emergency food boxes across the state have climbed more than 100 per cent in recent months. "We are now feeding 200,000 people a day," said Kara Ritter, a spokesman for St Mary's. For the fiscal year 2006-07, that meant 51 million pounds of food.
An unprecedented number of recipients are first timers - and not the type of people who normally turn up at food banks. Sally Nieto is one such customer. The 65-year-old widow worked for 19 years at Motorola, the mobile phone maker. She used to be the kind of person who made donations to the Phoenix Rescue Mission. "I never imagined I'd be coming here for food one day," Mrs Nieto said. But when her husband died last year, his protracted illness ate up their savings. Mrs Nieto now receives social security payments, but with the cost of living rising, her monthly cheque no longer covers the bills.
"By the time I get done paying the house, the power and filling my gas tank, there is nothing left for food," she said. "How did it ever come to this?" Some waiting at the Rescue Mission admit they made foolish choices: buying a house they could not afford and watching their monthly payment to their adjustable mortgage rate soar just as the home value plunged. However, many just lost their jobs, or had medical emergency costs that left them penniless. Then came rising food and fuel prices to create the perfect storm.
"We normally say that food is a Band-aid for other problems in their lives," said Nicole Pena, of the Rescue Mission, referring to the fact that a high percentage of destitute people suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction or domestic abuse. "But that doesn't reflect these new clients," Ms Pena said. The mission used to feed 1,800 people a month and now feeds 3,000, she said. "I used to know everyone who came in here," Mr Gadson said, shaking his head. "Not anymore."
As US residents tighten their belts, Mr Gadson and others fear donations to their mission will drop off and demand will continue to climb. "The [Christmas] holidays are always challenging for those on fixed income and the working poor," said Terry Shannon, St Mary's president and chief executive. "This holiday season is going to be significantly more difficult if current trends continue." email@example.com