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When food stamps don't cut it, food pantries offer a boost

Mary Rose Madden
88.1 WYPR

Ernest Jones lives with his wife, his son, and his son's two children. He comes to 40 West regularly to pick up pantry staples like applesauce and beans, along with fresh fruit and meat. He can't get everything he needs at this food pantry, but it's a big help. Like many who come to this church basement in west Baltimore, he's living on a fixed income, but providing for many. "I was just asking these people if they knew of any jobs for my son, you know?" 

Experts say senior citizens often supplement their grocery needs at food banks but so do groups that may surprise you. Not all those who visit food panties are homeless or unemployed. Many work part-time, have full-time jobs with low wages, or are suffering from an illness - be it their own or someone in their household. The Maryland Food Bank says hundreds of thousands of Marylanders make too much to qualify for state or federal help buying food, but not enough to make ends meet. They say thousands of them rely on soup kitchens, schools, community organizations, and food pantries to meet their basic needs. 

Sandy Woodcock has been the director of 40 West since February. She's the only paid employee and she herself is part-time. Besides food, 40 West distributes clothing, shoes, diapers, help with evictions, utility bills, and this time of year - they play Santa's helper: giving new presents and dinners to families in need through Angel Tree. 

40 West is located in the basement of Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Edmondson Ave. They partner with other churches to get volunteers and clothing donations. The Maryland food Bank provides the meat and potatoes for the food pantry. 

"Middle class people make lots of assumptions about why people are poor and they are all untrue," Woodcock says. People experience a setback - be it slight or significant - and that starts a downward spiral that can't be stopped. "We see often see people in a crisis, like eviction or utility - and it's often related to employment. They've hit a bump and they have to choose with what they need," she says, as she remembers numerous stories from this past year.  "We give food to who shows us identification," Woodcock says, "but because of monetary restrictions, the other aid is for zip codes in the area". 

"It's really helpful," Jennifer Francis, 60, says of 40 West's food pantry. She works part-time as a medical-technician and says the gift she received from 40 West for her sixteen year old son is the only gift he'll get under the Christmas tree.  Once she started working part-time, her federal food assistance was reduced to fifteen dollars a month. "Apples or potatoes," volunteer Tony Young asks her. "Give me the potatoes," she says, "I'm working Christmas Day and I'm going to make potato salad for my residents." 

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.