As Bay Area charitable agencies scramble to make sure everyone has food on the table, a few agencies are also trying to make sure there's kibble in the bowl.
With unemployment high and a struggling economy, many low-income pet owners are faced with a decision -- use scarce dollars to buy pet food, give up a loved animal companion they can't afford to feed, or cut back on their own food.
A few years ago, volunteers delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound Bay Area seniors began seeing a trend. They'd often find their food container empty on the kitchen floor. It didn't take long to figure out why.
"The volunteers noticed Meals on Wheels participants were splitting their portions with their animals," said Melanie Sadek, leader of Valley Humane Society in Pleasanton.
Coming to the rescue are animal welfare organizations in the Bay Area and the nation, who make monthly pet food donations to the neediest pet owners. The goal is to keep animals in their homes and keep them out of an overcrowded shelter system.
"A lot of people would rather go hungry than let their pet go hungry. It's heartbreaking," said Christina Kostic, community outreach coordinator for the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society Pet Food Pantry.
In a new push to care for hungry pets, the Humane Society of the United States this week launched its Fill the Bowl project, that encourages local churches and faith groups to add pet food and supplies to holiday collection drives.
"Food banks are in great need of pet food," said Christine Gutleben, senior director of the faith outreach program the Humane Society of the United States.
"When a family can't feed their pet, it can end up in a shelter, and that breaks up families and exacerbates a bad situation," she said.
The "AniMeals" program of Valley Humane Society has given away more than 22,000 pounds of kibble and 4,700 cans of food this year to Pleasanton and Livermore residents in the Meals on Wheels program, as well as to those who get food from Tri-Valley Haven and Valley Bible Church food pantries.
"There's been a huge increase in need," said Executive Director Sadek. "We'd love to go out to other cities, but we just don't get enough food to be able to do it."
Contra Costa Humane Society partners with Contra Costa and Solano food banks to offer an AniMeals program that distributes up to 15,000 pounds of dry and wet food each year to up to 450 families a month. That works out to about 1,000 dogs and 600 cats fed monthly, said Executive Director Leeann Lorono.
"People say they couldn't do without it -- it bridges the gap in their budget and allows them to make it," Loreno said. "These animals are family members, and you don't want to lose a family member."
The Berkeley East Bay Humane Society Pet Food Pantry gives thousands of pounds of food yearly to a wide range of clients in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Kostic said.
"Recipients can be anyone from transients on the street with their dogs to the person who had a job and got laid off and doesn't have money to put food on the table for the family, let alone animals," she said. "They are so grateful and appreciative. These animals really are like their children."
The need is also felt in Marin County, where the Marin Humane Society's Side by Side program provides food for pets of more than 200 low-income seniors and hospice patients.
"We're actually servicing a record number of companion animals -- just over 300," said spokeswoman Carrie Harrington. "I think people tend to think of Marin as being a kind of economic bubble, but the downturn in the economy has affected our community, and we're seeing that in our number of calls."
All the organizations depend on food donations from individuals, civic groups and companies such as Pet Food Express, Walmart, Save Mart and Clorox,
Donations can be left at animal organization offices, collection points at pet supply stores or as part of any food drive collection.
"So often during the holidays, we recognize the need to provide toys and clothing for families in need, but they also have pets, and in some cases they are their sole companion," said Gutleben, with the national humane society, "Pets bring so much relief and joy to people's lives. Why not support that if we can?"
Pet food can be donated as part of any holiday food drive, dropped off at collection sites at participating pet supply stores or brought to:
Contra Costa Humane Society's AniMeals Program
Partners with Contra Costa and Solano County food banks. Food may be left at the society's office, 609 Gregory Lane, Suite 210, Pleasant Hill, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or left in AniMeals barrels outside. 925-279-2247.
Valley Humane Society's AniMeals program
Partners with Meals on Wheels, Tri-Valley Haven and Valley Bible Church. Donations can be left at 3670 Nevada St., Pleasanton. The shelter is open Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, noon to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 925-426-8656.
Berkeley East Bay Humane Society's Pet Food Pantry
Donations can be left at the society's office, 2700 Ninth St., Berkeley from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 510-845-7735.
Marin Humane Society's Side-By-Side Program
Marin Humane Society is at 171 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Novato. Food may be left Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 415-883-4621.