SIOUX FALLS, SD -
It's no secret the troubled economy's taken a toll on Feeding South Dakota. And as the recession recovery continues, a new normal emerges for the local non-profit.
When it rains, it pours and Christine Woods struggles to keep her head above water. The single mother of three works nearly 50 hours a week but finds herself relying on donated food from the Sioux Falls pantry.
"The thing that bothers me the most is the way people look at me when I come in. They say, 'You're working. Can't you afford to support your family on groceries?' But they keep forgetting that you have to pay your rent, gas, all that stuff. But food is not cheap, especially not for three teenage kids," Woods said.
Money is tight. Woods says she makes too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to buy food. She's come here off and on for two years when, what little money she's able to save, runs out.
"We don't spend as much during the school year when kids have breakfast and lunch at school. But summer is coming and that is the worst part, especially when I don't get food stamps," Woods said.
Woods situation is not unique. In fact, she's part of the new normal coming from the wake of the recession. Before 2008, food pantries were used to meet short-term emergency needs. Now, families are relying on it long term to meet critical shortfalls on food each month; families who can't seem to get ahead.
Twenty-nine-year old Michael Gross and his wife also rely on the food pantry. He has a disability and cannot work. The donations help tide the couple over before they receive help from the government.
"It gets me by until I get my food stamps on the 10th of the month. It helps us out a lot. Some people just don't know how much we need food," Gross said.
If it wasn't for this cart of food, Gross admits he would be forced to look for food inside dumpsters and trash cans, something he's done before to survive.
"This need for constant support in the food budget is ongoing and we're still seeing that and we may see that for a long time to come," Feeding South Dakota Executive Director Matt Gassen said.
In less than four years, the number of people coming to the Sioux Falls and Rapid City pantries rose 65 percent, totaling nearly 74,000 people. Gassen blames the rise on unemployment, underemployment, illness, divorce and debt.
"Demand just sky rocketed on us and we were struggling to keep up. There was no way, at that rate, that we were going to keep enough food on our shelves to provide to the people that really needed it," Gassen says.
So instead of allowing clients to come once a month, the pantry requires them to wait 90 days between visits to stretch the food farther. After years of high demand, Gassen expected things to level off in 2012, but new statistics show a seven percent increase in demand over this time last year, proving the worst isn't behind them.
"Resources are a challenge for us because the other side of this increase in demand is actually a decrease in product availability for us," Gassen said.
Feeding South Dakota's experiencing fewer donations and a significant reduction in government commodities. So far, the non-profit received 225,000 fewer pounds than this time last year, forcing them to consider limiting the food others rely on.
And while clients can only come every 90 days, the food they do receive - about 50 pounds - only stretches two or three days.
It may not be much, but Woods says this food is critical to her family's survival. She doesn't know what she would do without it. But she wishes the new normal was anything but normal.
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