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Brit Worgan

ONEONTA _ With more people using local food banks and feeding programs, tough economic times are having an impact at the dinner table, according to the Hunger Task Force.

But volunteers, community groups, food drives, gardening and creativity in home kitchens are helping to alleviate the strain, said task force members, who met Wednesday at St. James Church in Oneonta.

St. James Church hosts a food pantry — one of 19 in Otsego County. It also runs The Lord's Table, a feeding program. The number of people served by the food pantry is up 63 percent over last year, while diners at the Lord's Table increased nearly 41 percent, according to church figures.

"The numbers are up … way up," food pantry and Lord's Table Director Joyce Mason said. "The numbers started rising a year ago."

Those in need range from the poorest families on food stamps to more affluent families that are having a hard time getting by, Mason said.

No one is turned away, she said.

"You need food, you get food," Mason said.

Last June, the food pantry served 50 households, helping 166 people eat. This June, the pantry assisted 84 households with 271 people, according to figures provided by Mason.

A similar increase was seen at The Lord's Table. Last June, 1,147 guests were served at the Lord's Table, which opens at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. This June, 1,615 guests were served, according to the figures.

Janice Hinkley, outreach coordinator for St. Mary's Church in Oneonta, said more people are also using her church's food pantry — 184 households with 584 people last month.

"The economy stinks," Hinkley said. "We've seen a lot more people in the last year who have never had to come to a food bank before."

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Hinkley said the reasons behind it are complex, and there is no single cause, such as a mass layoff at one of the area's manufacturing plants.

Hunger Task Force members Mason, Hinkley and The Rev. Cynthia L. Walton-Leavitt, pastor of First United Presbyterian in Oneonta, gave the following reasons for the pressure on food pantries: Families may have lost a part-time or full-time job; workers are being forced to take unpaid furlough days, have not received raises or are seeing their hours cut; Social Security payments have not had a cost-of-living increase this year; and groceries may be more expensive.

At the same time, food pantries are having a harder time getting food. The pantries receive much of their food from a regional food bank in Latham.

"Their prices are rising," Hinckley said.

State grants received by the pantries to purchase food must be used at the regional food bank, and this limits purchasing options, she said.

Any purchases outside of the regional food bank must be done with other revenue sources.

Supply has been another concern.

Staples such as macaroni and cheese, rice, peanut butter and juice have run low, Mason said.

Walton-Leavitt said the task force, which formed about three years ago, became rejuvenated this year after Opportunities for Otsego scaled back its operations at the Community Connections food bank.

The task force took over the procurement and sorting of surplus food from area supermarkets that had formerly been handled by OFO. That volunteer-driven group is also looking at ways to network among the area's food pantries and feeding programs to maximize the assistance they can provide.

"Our purpose is to get people connected to one another," Walton-Leavitt said.

Despite an economic picture that does not seem to be getting brighter, the women said they are hopeful the task force, working with groups and individuals from the area, can respond to the need.

"People are chipping in to help," Hinkley said. "I see more people doing gardens … sharing with their neighbors more."

Food drives, such as one at an Oneonta Outlaws game at Damaschke Field on July 4, have been successful, and there are more drives planned in the coming months, Mason said.

Efforts are under way to bring vegetables from community and home gardens to people's plates.

Walton-Leavitt said local resident Jill Eichler led an effort to give vegetable plants to local gardeners for them to raise as produce for donation to food pantries and feeding programs.

St. James has also received donations from local farmers, Mason said.

The women said they know they can't cure hunger in the area. But they said they hoped to at least be able to make a difference.

"The hungry will always be with us … to paraphrase Jesus," Walton-Leavitt said.

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