BERKELEY -- Here's a sobering holiday riddle: What does a cutback in food stamps have in common with the fact that Tami Groves regularly has 800 pounds of frozen chicken jammed into the back of her Toyota?
Answer: The Nov. 1 cutback to the tune of $30 a month for a family of three has Groves, director of the Berkeley Food Pantry, struggling to keep up with a corresponding 30 percent increase in demand, and she is using every means necessary to get food to hungry clients, including using her own car to ferry frozen chicken around.
With about 47 million Americans receiving food stamps, Congress is considering further cuts from $4 billion to $40 billion over 10 years.
That makes now a good time to make a cash donation to the organization that feeds 2,200 people a month, 900 of whom are children, Groves said. And the need is likely to grow.
The only paid employee of the organization, Groves can't afford even a used van to pick up frozen chicken and meat from a donated storage facility in Oakland and has to put it in her own car. Nor does she have the money or the space for a freezer in the Berkeley Friends Church, where the food bank has operated since 1969.
"This is how grass-roots we are here," said Groves, who took over leadership of the food bank in January after former beloved director Bill Shive retired. "When I started we had 1,700 clients a month, and now it's up to 2,200. From what we're hearing, the cutback in food stamps is why people are coming back after so many years away. They have had the dignity of being able to choose their own food with food stamps, and now they have to come here and stand in very long lines."
People looking to do something for others around the holidays should give money instead of food to the food bank, Groves said. Cash is better because with the food bank's connections to wholesale discounts through the Alameda County Community Food Bank, she can buy more food than an individual could.
"We do welcome food donations, but we really don't need sweets, candy, potato chips or soda," Grove said. "Or specialty items like canned clams."
Tracey Lewis, who was recently waiting in line to get some food for her 77-year-old mother, said the food stamp cutback hit people hard, so she's even more grateful for the food bank.
"When your budget is down to the dollar and they take $30 away, there goes your food, your meat," Lewis said. "What I like about this place is no matter how tough it gets, they help you so you can make it, so people have some hope, some faith. And thank God for the donors who come every month."
Groves said the stories she hears from clients who line up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday are both "heart-wrenching and consistent." For example, one woman's daughter was recently murdered and her son is in jail. On top of that, she has nine other children to look after, Groves said.
Then there are people like 58-year-old Joe Trim who got in line for the first time recently and was promptly put to work getting grocery bags ready for the coming rush later that day.
"I was expecting a little money to come in, but it was put in the mail late," Trim explained. "So it set me back. My girlfriend's income is just enough to pay the bills. You gotta eat. And sometimes you gotta take some of the things people give you."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
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