Charlotte to give Loaves & Fishes $50,000

Local food pantry Loaves & Fishes will soon receive $50,000, enough to buy three weeks' worth of groceries.

Charlotte City Council on Monday voted 7-3 to accept an appropriation that will give temporary relief to the food bank that serves a majority of Charlotte's needy residents. Council members Warren Cooksey, John Lassiter and Edwin Peacock voted against it.

Food assistance officials say current conditions are the worst they have ever seen. Community needs for food assistance are increasing, but donations remain the same.Officials do not expect conditions to get better anytime soon.

“This is the greatest need that we have ever seen in our 33-year history,” said Lucy Mitchell, development director for Loaves & Fishes, which gives out free food at 13 locations around the county. “It is a critical situation.”

Over the past year, 80,000 people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg sought help with food, a new city study found.

From January to June, Loaves & Fishes served 36,946 individuals, Mitchell said. That's a 16 percent increase from the same time period last year.

“We're just seeing unprecedented numbers of people coming through our doors,” Mitchell said. “This is the busiest our pantries have ever been.”

An Observer article published in May detailed how demand outstripped supply at every pantry and food bank in the region. Charlotte residents responded in droves to Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Beverly Howard's plea for peanut butter.

But the surge in donations has tapered off.

City Council has previously given money to other aid programs. This year, the Council approved $240,000 to United Family Services for financial and mortgage counseling, and $380,000 in funding to Crisis Assistance Ministry for rent and utilities payments.

Jeff Cohen, communications director for Crisis Assistance, said the ministry's emergency program is turning away a growing number of people. Cohen said that the ministry can only serve people who face eviction or shut off utilities that day. Others are told to come back later.

Last year, Crisis Assistance turned away 6,309 people. The program exceeded that number by the end of the third quarter this year, Cohen said.

“It continues to trend up,” he said. “People living paycheck to paycheck are just getting hammered by the rising cost of gas, the rising cost of food and other basic expenses.”

Summertime, when children stop getting free school lunches, is often difficult for low-income families.

Mitchell says she's seen basic food costs rise dramatically in the past year.

Last year, she said, the price of one dozen eggs was $1.22. Now, it's $2.09. Macaroni and cheese, once 59 cents, is 87 cents a box. And peanut butter, priced at $1.69 per 18-ounce jar last year, is $2.29.

“I don't know that you can get much more basic than that,” Mitchell said. “These are not luxury items.”

Mitchell said the most powerful comment she's heard is from a mother choosing between buying a gallon of gas to get to work and a gallon of milk to keep her children healthy.

Loaves & Fishes has not yet had to turn away a needy person. Mitchell said she hopes that day will never come.