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Demand for food rising in Mass., but donations fall

Nadine Wilkerson was at the Salvation Army looking for food assistance.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Nadine Wilkerson was at the Salvation Army looking for food assistance.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving — the busiest time of year for food distribution agencies — individuals and families are lining up for meals in record numbers, even as food and monetary donations have declined.

The increased need is being driven, in part, by the growing number of people falling below the poverty line for the first time, as they struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living, from food to utilities, say agency representatives.

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“The face of hunger is changing, and Greater Boston Food Bank is serving more and more middle class families,” Catherine D’Amato, the food bank’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “Nearly half of the people we serve do not qualify for government assistance. These are working adults who simply can’t make ends meet. This is the meal gap.”

For many, the need is especially poignant as the holidays approach, as they strive to assemble a special family meal.

Nadine Wilkerson, went to the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Dorchester Thursday to request a turkey so she and her two young daughters could celebrate their first Thanksgiving together in their apartment. But she was told that all the turkeys had already been claimed, and that she would be placed on a waiting list.

Last year, the 27-year-old lost her household income after separating from her daughters’ father. Wilkerson and her girls, Robecca and Natalie, now 5 and 4, ended up homeless and living in a women’s shelter. In April, Wilkerson, who recently graduated from Roxbury Community College, was placed in temporary housing.

“Sometimes things in life happen not according to the plans that you have,” said Wilkerson, who also signed up for the agency’s food assistance and Christmas gift programs. “I am not ashamed at all. If children need to eat, they need to be fed.”

Wilkerson and her daughters will get a turkey after all, thanks to a corporate donation that came in late Thursday afternoon.

For four years, Rhonita Hargrow has been eating hot meals and using the food pantry at Rosie’s Place in Boston, as she fights to afford rising expenses, including medication for her 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

This year, she and three of her children have an invitation at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, the rest of the year, she relies on the charity.

“[My kids] don’t have a problem with it,” said Hargrow, who works part time for Rosie’s Place, which serves poor and homeless women. “They know that life is a struggle, things aren’t just handed to them and food is expensive.”

About 14 percent of Massachusetts residents were in poverty last year, according to the latest revised numbers released by the Census Bureau Wednesday. A 2010 study by The Greater Boston Food Bank, which serves 550 agencies in Eastern Massachusetts, showed the demand for food assistance increased by 23 percent between 2005 and 2009, said spokeswoman Erin Caron. The agency, which distributed 41 million pounds of food last year, expects the upward trend to continue, she said.

This Thanksgiving, the food bank expects to hand out 40,000 turkeys, which they acquired at $17 per bird, an increase from $13 in 2010, Caron said.

Salvation Army volunteers are expecting record turnout when they distribute 1,800 Thanksgiving food baskets Saturday at five Boston locations. The agency has seen a 50 percent increase in the the number of residents seeking help.

“There have been families and people throughout the state using the services for the first time,” said Laura Wareck, spokeswoman for The Salvation Army in Boston. “A lot of these are families with one or more adults working, but have had their hours cut.”

Barry Bluestone, an economist and director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said he is not surprised to see a spike in the number of people flocking to food pantries, even as the economy slowly recovers.

“Many people just can’t hang on any longer,” he said.

As demand is growing, food donations have decreased for many hunger relief agencies. At theMerrimack Valley Food Bank , which serves 100 agencies in Greater Lowell, the North Shore, and Southern New Hampshire, food donations declined by 45,000 pounds from 2011 to 2012, said Amy Pessia, executive director. Meanwhile, the bank went from serving about 40,000 people in 2010 to 70,000 this year.

“We are seeing record numbers of people visiting food pantries and meal programs,” Pessia said. “The financial picture that everyday people face is becoming more and more challenging as the cost of living rises.”

In Lawrence the struggle for food has reached dire levels, said Bridget Shaheen, executive director of Lazarus House Ministries , which operates a food pantry and soup kitchen that went from serving up to 240 families two years ago, to as many as 955 over the past five weeks. Lazarus House gives out 13 tons of food a week. “People are becoming more and more desperate, life is harder and harder,” Shaheen said.

As of Wednesday, Lazarus House had 200 turkeys, far short of the 1,500 needed to meet Thanksgiving demand, Shaheen said. Many who signed up for holiday food orders earlier this month stood in line in bitter cold temperatures starting at 3 a.m.

“Nobody gets up in the morning excited that they’re going to get their groceries from a food pantry,” Shaheen said. “If you’re willing to stand in line for three hours for 11 items of food, you either really need it, or you have mental health problems, but either way food will not be denied to you.”

Globe Correspondent Jay Fitzgerald contributed to this report. Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe
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