POCATELLO — Idaho Foodbank manager Rebecca Ristem knows the face of hunger.
“A Hispanic family showed up two weeks ago with little kids and the 5-year-old had to translate,” Ristem said. “She said, ‘My mom and dad haven’t eaten in two days.’ The parents were going hungry to feed their kids.”
Ristem said she sees the need for food in terms of people and children suffering.
“Our numbers still show that one in six Idahoans suffer from hunger,” Ristem said. “That includes 92,000 children under the age of 18.”
Poverty and the hunger that comes with it are also no strangers to Pocatello Salvation Army Director Brenda Ames. The soup kitchen at the Salvation Army has seen the line for its noon meals six days a week grow from about a dozen people each day to nearly 60.
“These are families with children right now,” Ames said. “Typically they come in here and they’ve lost all household income or only one person has a job and it’s not meeting their needs.”
Emergency pantries through out Southeast Idaho are seeing an increase in the number of emergency food boxes they are distributing. The surge in demand has caused a shortage of dry food goods and canned products — things that can be stored without refrigeration.
It’s the lack of adequate refrigeration and freezer space at pantries like the Salvation Army’s that is exacerbating the shortage of dry goods.
“We have food,” Ristem said. “It’s just that it’s perishable fresh or frozen food.”
The Food Bank manager said this time of year brings an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as large quantities of frozen products, but they all have to be distributed to families very quickly to avoid spoilage.
Food distribution to the poor used to be about 50 percent dry products including canned goods just six years ago. That has slipped to 25 percent of the available food today.
Southeast Idaho relies heavily on two major food drives to fill pantries with dry food. They are the letter carriers food drive in the spring and the Boy Scouts of America drive in the fall.
Efforts byU.S. Postal Service carriers this past spring were disappointing.
Ames said normally the Salvation Army receives about six to eight pallets full of food form the mail carrier effort, but this year it produced just three pallets’ worth.
“My storage area downstairs is completely empty,” Ames said.
To be able to meet the need to provide emergency food baskets to families, Ames said she’s been forced to spend $1,000 from other Salvation Army funds to get the job done.
This reduces the amount of funding the Salvation Army has for things like emergency rent assistance or gas vouchers so people can get to and from work.
“For the most part, the people we see are working,” Ames said. “We work with the working poor.”
With the Heinz plant closure in Pocatello and the still sluggish economy, Ames sees the situation getting worse before it improves. Compounding Ames woes has been a delay in allocations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with things like rental assistance for the poor.
“FEMA right now is almost a year behind,” Ames said. “We received our first payment in May and that money was gone in a week and a half. We’re still waiting for our second payment which was requested on June 9th.”
Another shift that is putting a strain on emergency food pantries in the area is the fact that the Southeast Idaho Community Action Agency or SEICCA stopped distributing emergency food baskets on July 1.
“We thought it was better to put our resources into family development programs like GEDs and money management classes,” said SEICCA’s assistance manager Julia Campbell.
SEICCA still offers surplus USDA products once a month and market salvage products like day-old bread. If a family needs an emergency food basket, it is referred to one of nine pantries on a list.
And most of the those pantries rely on the Idaho Food Bank to help keep them stocked. Ristrem said this brings into play the problem with refrigeration and freezer space.
This June the Food Bank provided food to nearly 4,600 households in Eastern Idaho or nearly 27,000 people. In June of 2013, the Food Bank helped feed 20,000 people in need. Obviously the problem has grown.
And as if the Food Bank wasn’t facing big enough challenges, Ristem said the Pocatello center’s main truck has broken down. It is getting by on a borrowed truck from Boise’s Food Bank.
“I’m praying for new truck,” Ristem said.
Executive Director of United Way of Southeast Idaho, Margaret Ganyo said her organization is working to find a solution to the refrigerator and freezer space issue hampering available food distribution.
“The nature of the available food is changing at the Food Bank and we need to get together and assess needs,” Ganyo said.
But acquiring freezers and refrigeration units will take time and Ames said that is something many hungry, poor people can’t afford. A boost in dry food donations would help ease the problem, according to both Ames and Ristrem.
Ames has been with the Salvation Army in the Gate City for 28 years and said she has faith in the generosity of this community.
“I’m yet to see this community not step up when the need is presented,” Ames said. “And right now we’re struggling to try to help these people.”