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After Declining Past Few Years, Food Crises Plateau In Mecklenburg County

Michael Tomsic
A volunteer (left) helps a mother get food at a Loaves and Fishes pantry.

After big declines the past few years in the number of families who need help putting food on the table, food crises essentially flattened in Mecklenburg County this year. That's according to Loaves and Fishes, which has a network of 20 food pantries.

A volunteer rolled a shopping cart through the pantry at Camino Community Center on Tuesday. She was helping a family pick out a week's worth of food. This week, that included a turkey.

"That's a present for you, this pavo," the volunteer said, using the Spanish word for turkey.

The pantries are on pace to feed about 68,000 people this year. Executive Director Tina Postel says that's only a couple thousand fewer than the year before, which breaks a trend of much larger declines since 2012. 

"Some of the cost of living and expenses that families are facing - like with rent, utility and transportation - I think all of those costs are going up," she says. "And their income, revenue streams aren't increasing at the same rate, so they just continue to live paycheck to paycheck and can't catch a break."

Postel says their annual survey found a 10 percent increase in clients who'll use the money saved on groceries to help pay rent.

That's what tripped up the Stevens family. Isaac Stevens, his wife and three kids had trouble finding housing when they moved from Minnesota to Charlotte in June.

"We ended up basically running out of the resources that we had set up a lot faster than anticipated and just said hey, we could use just a little bit of assistance trying to get back on our feet," he says.

Loaves and Fishes is meant to fill needs in a short-term crisis. It changed its eligibility recently so families have the option of coming in eight consecutive weeks, rather than having to wait 45 days between visits.

Stevens landed a commission-based job selling insurance, and he gradually built up clients. Wednesday was the last day his family needed Loaves and Fishes.

"For someone like us, where we knew we weren't going to need assistance long-term," he says, "we were looking more at just getting us through this rough patch, they’ve been so amazing."

Stevens says Loaves and Fishes is primarily responsible for his Thanksgiving meal. The network of food pantries says that’s also true for nearly 3,000 others in Mecklenburg County.