Betty Burgess, who directs St. Vincent de Paul’s food pantry with her husband, Charles, packs bags of food Monday in front of bare shelves. Rising food costs and recent recalls are taking a toll on food banks. - Jim Craven

Food pantry crisis

The bare shelves at St. Vincent de Paul's food pantry tell the tale: There's a crisis in area food banks.

"We're starting to struggle to find food for the needy," said Kathy Morgan, vice president of community relations at St. Vincent de Paul's Medford shelter.

The number of people needing food has collided with increasing costs and critical reductions in government funding and surplus food supplies. Additionally, pantries have suffered inventory losses because of recent food recalls.

"Day by day, costs are up. We're having to put more of our resources into the food pantry," said Len Hebert, president of St. Vincent's Rogue Valley District Council.

Kara and Kade Markoux and their three small children have been living at St. Vincent's newly remodeled St. Anthony Emergency Family Shelter for the past six weeks. Relocating from Texas in the hope of finding a better life in Oregon, the Markouxes had expected to live with a friend of Kara's while they got their bearings. But that didn't work out, they said.

"She's totally ignored us since we got here," said Kara Markoux, 40.

Although they receive food stamps, the Markouxes say without the additional food from St. Vincent's pantry, they and their children would be hungry as well as homeless, said Kade Markoux, 27.

"(Food stamps) don't go far, he said. "We have to feed our kids. We can't just let them starve."

Not only the homeless struggle these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of milk has increased by 21.3 percent. The cost of eggs is 43.9 percent higher this year than last. The increased food costs are colliding with increasing gas, heating and mortgage costs. The net effect is more people, especially seniors living on fixed incomes, need help from food pantries, officials say.

"Five pallets of food were given out last Friday," said Charles Burgess, St. Vincent's pantry director, looking around the small, half-empty warehouse.

In addition to providing daily meals for the homeless, St. Vincent's pantry feeds almost 1,000 more people living in local households via its bagged grocery giveaway, which occurs the last two Fridays of each month, said Burgess' wife, Betty.

The Markoux family eats two meals a day at the shelter. Kade and Kara Markoux said they have seen elderly community members come to the pantry hungry and leave with bags of food.

"If you're strapped for cash and have no food, they'll make a bag for you. I've seen them do it," said Kade Markoux.

The Burgesses shop all the local stores looking for the best buys.

"It's a chore fighting for a good buy and getting good food with what money you've got," said Charles Burgess. "We hit them all. We go for the specials."

During July's Castleberry's Food Co. botulism recall, St. Vincent's had to return 15 cases of stew and chili. Cans of hearty food are staples in pantry kitchens. The merchandise has not been replaced, Hebert said.

ACCESS Inc. gives away 50,000 pounds of food each week, said Nutritional Program Manager Philip Yates.

Its 2006 holiday drive, "Food for Hope," helped the Jackson County food bank compensate for dwindling government supplies by yielding $23,237 and 22,547 pounds of food.

But congressional funding allocations have not kept pace with inflation. Relief efforts for recent natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes have further stretched the national budget and reduced the surplus of federal food commodities which used to be sent to local banks, Yates said.

"We had expected to see the excess (food) come back, as traditionally the case, but it didn't. We haven't seen cheese in five years," Yates said.

Although the Castleberry recall didn't affect ACCESS' numbers as much as it did smaller pantries, every can cut from county shelves has an impact, he said.

"Food safety is a primary element. We don't want people who are hungry already getting sick. From store to door we have specific procedures we abide by," Yates said.

Like other pantries, ACCESS Inc. is awaiting Castleberry's replacements.

Donations of bread, fruit, vegetables and other goods from local stores, growers and individuals help feed the hungry, said Betty Burgess.

"Donations are important. That's a big help. Anything would be appreciated," she said.

In addition to funding and supplies, pantries could also use some strapping volunteers, said Charles Burgess, who will be 79 on Friday.

Burgess and his crew of two were halfway through unloading a truck filled with fresh fruit from Harry and David on Monday.

"We need manpower. We have to load everything by hand," he said.

To donate or volunteer at St. Vincent's, call 772-3828 weekdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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