By ERIN WALDNER
Driven by poor economic conditions, it's likely that more people will seek free Thanksgiving meals or other forms of charity this holiday.
At places that serve hot meals or deliver groceries at a discount, requests are already up, compared with last year.
"It's the economy. People are being laid off. They're struggling to keep their homes or make their payments. They don't have money for food," said Darci Castillejos, president of the Menifee Valley Community Cupboard, which delivers food, including Thanksgiving meals, to people in need.
The organization has gone from serving 400 families a month last year to 500.
Because of the economic situation, churches and organizations throughout the Inland area that serve free or discounted Thanksgiving meals are bracing for higher turnout this holiday.
In San Bernardino, The Salvation Army served 543 people last Thanksgiving. Administrators expect the number to reach 700 to 900 this year.
Day to day, the San Bernardino Salvation Army provides meals to 325 to 500 people, up from 175 in previous years.
The need for emergency food assistance has also risen dramatically at The Salvation Army in Moreno Valley. Capt. Julius Murphy, who heads the agency, said the food pantry assisted 200 families in July, and by September that increased to 478 families.
Roosevelt Carroll, director of the San Bernardino Salvation Army's homeless shelter, said more families and children are seeking food. Other people in the Inland Empire who assist the needy concurred.
Daryl Brock, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank in Riverside, said many people asking for assistance are doing so for the first time. He noted that food prices have gone up, as did fuel prices earlier this year. Compound that with the loss of a job or home and someone may seek help in one area of his or her life, he said.
"They don't have money for food," Castillejos said.
Jerry Casillas, the director of the nonprofit Community Assistance Program food pantry in Moreno Valley, said his organization is seeing about 100 new families a month, many of whom have never had to ask for help and don't know where to go for help.
"We're getting people who are losing their jobs, lost their homes. They're crying because they have nothing," Casillas said by phone.
At the same time, the program is seeing a decline in its resources, he said.
"I can't keep enough food on the shelves," he said.
Central Community Christian Fellowship in Riverside has been fielding calls about its annual Thanksgiving meal since October, said Pastor Eric Denton. Usually, people don't start calling until November.
Denton expects to serve 2,500 meals this Thanksgiving, up from 2,000 in prior years.
In Hemet, this will be the 24th year that Valle Vista Assembly of God has served a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. The church -- which, like Central Community, also makes deliveries -- served a record 1,200 Thanksgiving meals last year.
Pastor Becca Helms expects the figure to climb by 300 to 400 this holiday.
STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP
Already many churches and organizations in the Inland area are struggling to keep pace with requests for assistance.
At the United Way of the Inland Valleys, spokesman Kevin McCarthy said that so far this campaign season, donations are not down, but "we're certainly not where we need to be to meet the demand."
The Moreno Valley Salvation Army relies on holiday food drives by local businesses and community organizations to help needy families, Murphy said. The surplus from those food drives also carries the food pantry through the lean months after the holidays.
But the donations aren't coming in like Murphy expected.
"I'm used to a bigger response," he said by phone. "It's not coming in the way I'm used to."
Second Harvest Food Bank supplies food to 400 organizations in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that, in turn, give to people in need. Brock said food is going out almost as quickly as it comes in.
He said many agencies are having "a real tough time" and, in some cases, requests for the agencies' services have increased 20 to 25 percent.
Inland Harvest in Redlands gives surplus food from restaurants and markets to groups that feed people in need. Donations to Inland Harvest are down slightly, according to President Barbara Wormser. She said restaurants pressed by the economy are careful to not waste food, which means, at the end of the day, they have less to give away.
Denton said a corporate donor gave Central Community Christian Fellowship 200 frozen turkeys last year but won't be doing the same this year because of layoffs.
Giving Back in Riverside has given away Thanksgiving food baskets and frozen turkeys the past five years. Organizer Annette Ramsey said Wednesday that she hoped to distribute 500 turkeys or gift certificates for turkeys Saturday. As of Wednesday, she had 200 turkeys in stock.
Ramsey said Giving Back's two largest corporate sponsors, car dealers, could make only small donations this year.
Churches and organizations that provide Thanksgiving charity are asking for donations in the form of money, food and volunteer hours.
Ramsey said the community's need for assistance is greater than ever before and that people can't expect the government, nor corporations, to fill that need.
"It's got to come from the people," she said.
Staff writer Dan Lee contributed to this report.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008