- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 17, 2019

HARWICH, Mass. (AP) - Cape food pantries traditionally see more people needing help starting in October when seasonal jobs have ended for the year.

But this year, the Cape’s largest pantry saw an unprecedented spike.

“One week in November, the week prior to Thanksgiving, we had 542 families. That’s the highest we’ve ever had for a weekly count. The normal count is about 480 to 485 families,” said Christine Menard, executive director of the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich.

Menard said there have been other unexpectedly high demand weeks. Need is up 16% for the year over the same time last year, she said, which translates to about 10,000 individuals and 100,000 bags of groceries.

According to the Cape Cod Hunger Network, Cape Cod has 46 food pantries or feeding sites in 15 towns, as well as one each on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Need is up at many of those locations for no immediately identifiable reason. Meanwhile, food pantry officials keep a close eye on donations. Some, like the Bourne Community Food Pantry, issued an appeal to fill its shelves just before Thanksgiving.

On the Upper Cape, the Falmouth Service Center is experiencing a similar increase in demand.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in people who are coming for food every two weeks,” said Kerin Delaney, acting executive director of the Falmouth Service Center.

“In October, it was over 6,000 bags of food and about 900 households,” she said. “A typical month is 4,600 bags of groceries and 740 households.”

Delaney said part of the increased demand at Falmouth Service Center may be due to fresh market days twice a month at some schools in Falmouth and Mashpee. The program is open to all and includes learning to prepare a recipe and going home with the ingredients to make it. People who need food assistance can also get sign-up help and a bag of basic foods such as peanut butter.

“We’ve done significant outreach into the schools and more people are aware of what we do,” Delaney said.

A related program is also fueling some of Family Pantry’s growth. Menard said there has been a 30% to 40% increase in use at the pantry’s satellite location at Cape Cod Community College.

With growing need comes the question of whether donations will remain strong.

The other side of increased need is whether donations will increase the same amount.

“December remains to be seen,” Menard said, ”(because) 30% of the year’s smaller donations come in November and December.”

Menard said she is worried about a tax change that took effect with 2017 taxes that allows people to take a bigger standardized deduction rather than itemizing.

This will be the first year the provision is widely known, Menard said, and she is concerned about whether smaller donors will continue to give even if there is no tax advantage.

Menard said the Family Pantry also has an option for people to give a sustaining monthly amount of $25, $50, $75 or $100, which is automatically debited to the donor and provides four meals for each dollar given.

“We fortunately have enough so we can get by for a while,” she said, pointing to the pantry’s 650 volunteers as a big part of its resources.

Cash donations like those go farther, she said, because she can purchase food for 16 cents a pound from the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Delaney said donated food does help to keep more variety on the shelves.

Regina Giambusso, executive director of the Cape and Islands Veterans Outreach Center, says the group has served 1,041 veterans this year, about the same as last year. The Hyannis-based group that serves only veterans has annual donations from the Hyannis Elks and Coachlight Carpets. There are also one-time donations, such as the 30 holiday pies baked by local Girl Scouts.

“We also benefit from a lot of civic projects through the middle schools,” she said. “People are appreciative of our veterans and they want to show it.”

Menard said the regional pantry’s clients are one-third children, one-third seniors and the rest adults. Of the clientele, 65% of people have two or three jobs trying to earn the $26 per hour ($54,000 annually) needed to live on Cape Cod.

“We don’t consider ourselves an emergency pantry and we haven’t for at least four years now,” Menard said. “We consider ourselves a sustaining pantry. We want families to be able to stay here - work and live and have the kids go to school. That’s what keeps the Cape healthy.”

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