CHAMPAIGN – There's always a line at the Salt and Light food pantry, where experienced customers know to come early for a good spot in line.
Being in the back means you might miss out on the limited produce or meat, though "they usually have something to give you," says Loretta Sanderson of St. Joseph. In two years, she'd never seen anyone turned away empty-handed.
Until May 19. On that day, Salt and Light's weekly food distribution closed at 3 p.m., two hours early, because it ran out of food.
"I hadn't seen them run out completely before," said Sanderson, who uses the food to supplement her disability check.
The news sent a shudder through the local social services network, as Salt and Light is one of the county's largest emergency food programs.
Director Nathan Montgomery assured nervous United Way representatives that the ministry is not in danger of closing. But he and other providers say it's evidence of a rising demand for food, especially as summer approaches.
Salt and Light has seen a disproportionate increase because of the huge publicity generated by last summer's "Extreme Makeover" of Montgomery's house and the Salt and Light building on Anthony Drive, said Cheryl Middaugh, director of marketing and development for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
Salt and Light went from serving 245 families a week last summer to 355 early this year, then saw another jump in mid-April, to 400-plus. It now averages 425 families a week.
"It's really been a struggle just to keep up with it," Montgomery said.
He's not alone. Across the board, agencies that serve the hungry have seen growing demand for the past year or two, mostly because of the recession. And they're getting lots of first-time clients.
"People who never before had to access food pantries are running out of dollars," said Sue Grey of the Champaign County United Way.
– At Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign, officials say about a third of the food pantry's customers are new. Open every weekday except Wednesday, it serves 1,500 to 1,800 people a month, and the demand is "definitely up," said food pantry director Kasimir Faber. "I've been seeing a lot of new faces around here."
– The Wesley Evening Food Pantry in Urbana, which is open once a month, drew 1,058 people on May 20, the most since November. The numbers for March and April were 659 and 723, by comparison, though May 2009 also topped 1,000.
Director Donna Camp said she took precautions to have extra food on hand this month after hearing the numbers at Salt and Light and Restoration. And she's planning for double that number in June, just in case. With so many new people, some of whom had been turned away by other pantries, she's assuming word will spread about Wesley.
– Demand is also up at The Vineyard's food pantry, which moved in December to 922 W. Bradley Ave., C. Director Paula Barickman blames high gas prices, the recession and unemployment, and says the high cost of prescriptions is taking a toll on the elderly.
"A lot of senior citizens are asking for help that have never used any kind of help before," she said. "The president may think the economy is better, but the people who are using the pantries don't seem to be feeling that yet."
Food pantry traffic is cyclical, directors say. Thanksgiving and Christmas are always busy because of holiday food giveaways.
And the numbers tend to spike in the summer, when families living on the edge economically are strained by having children home from school. There are day-care expenses, extra food costs because children may not have access to free school breakfast and lunch, and added utility and transportation costs, Middaugh said.
Some low-paying jobs associated with the university or schools – custodians or cafeteria workers, for instance – may evaporate in the summer, leaving workers low on money, Camp added. And because it's a university town, most leases end in late July or early August, so tenants who get behind on rent or power bills have to scrape together money to pay those off so they won't get evicted, she said.
Pantries also see a natural increase in business at the end of the month, when food stamp benefits run out, Middaugh said. A recent Hunger in America study showed that 76 percent of agency clients report their monthly food allocation runs out in three weeks, and nearly half say it runs out in two weeks.
Salt and Light may have just seen a "perfect storm" of those factors – families preparing for summer, the end-of-the-month drought, and general awareness of its services because of last year's publicity, she said.
The pantries are all following similar patterns as in past years, Middaugh said, "but the big difference this year is that everything has been shifted up a big notch by the recession."
Salt and Light, a Christian ministry, asks few questions of clients at its Wednesday food distribution, and doesn't limit how many times they can receive food. Neither does Wesley. That may also boost their numbers, as some pantries do set limits or check IDs, officials said.
At Restoration, people can get food every two weeks. The Vineyard gives out food every week but limits individuals to once a month, mostly because parking at its new location is scarce, Barickman said. Checkers enter the person's name in a database to keep track, though clients can give fake names, she said. One man used the name of his uncle, who was then flagged when he came to the pantry, she said.
Salt and Light, Wesley and others do ask customers to sign a statement saying they meet federal poverty guidelines for the government commodities program, which the food bank requires, said Scott Olthoff, financial counselor at Salt and Light. But they don't ask about income or check IDs. Government rules say they'd have to check everyone, and that's not Salt and Light's mission, Olthoff said.
Mary Kay Bosch volunteers at Salt and Light's distribution every week and also gets food for herself and her parents – "I figure if I get food, I'm going to work for it." She loves the work and the people but said some take advantage of the pantry's generosity, from "all races."
"What can you do?" Bosch said. "God is the one they have to answer to, not us."
For most pantries, the goal is just to get food into people's homes, Grey said.
Camp believes few people would bother standing in line, sometimes for two hours, to get free food if they could afford to buy it.
There's also a pride factor. New clients are often nervous or embarrassed, Camp said.
"We tell them, 'That's what we're here for,'" said Restoration's volunteer coordinator, Linda Cramer.
Faber said some people make the rounds to several different food pantries a week, or even in a given day, by necessity. He helped one man carry bags to his car this week and saw a trunk full of food. The man said his food stamp benefits just weren't enough, and that was how he got by.
"Our philosophy is, if they're trying to come here, they have some kind of need," Olthoff added. "It may not be food, but a smile."
There were some new faces at Salt and Light last week: a mom going through a divorce who had "child-support issues," an immigrant from Congo who was having a hard time making ends meet.
Overall business was down, with a total of 380 families. But Montgomery is preparing for a busy summer, raising money and stocking up on food. The agency is spending $1,500 a week on food, compared to $1,000 a year ago.
"We're doing the most we can. But it's not enough," he said.