In Lake City, Fla., the food bank is running on empty. For a few hundred bucks, truckers had for years moved food and goods from one of the state's 17 food banks to another to meet local needs. The trucks then rumbled home, often with empty trailers. This spring, that stopped. Suzanne Edwards, director of the local food bank and its parent Catholic Charities agency, discovered that truckers would no longer haul donated food without promise of a full payload for the return trip.
"It's a huge hassle," says Edwards, who now finds herself organizing routes and cargo with other food bank directors. "We chase each other around for days trying to find out who has grapefruit juice, and in that time, I've lost a load of food already lined up because somebody else took it."
To compensate for dwindling stores, her agency has slashed the food it gives a client per week, from a full seven days' worth of meals to just three. The number of people coming through her doors, meanwhile, is the highest in five years. "The people who have been our contributors," she says, "are now becoming our clients."
The ailing economy, plagued by the foreclosure crisis and rampaging gas and food prices, is exacting a toll not only on the needy but on those who help them. After a series of strong years, charities are suddenly faced with donors tightening their belts and a growing number of needy. "The dichotomy is that your funding is drying up, yet you have to serve more people," says Rev. Ronald Brummit of the Miami Rescue Mission, where donations have declined more than 20 percent since last year. Polls show a similar story nationwide. After a marked slowdown in charitable giving in 2007, a new survey by the Center on Philanthropy finds that 83.2 percent of fundraising professionals say the economy is now actively harming donations. And a recent poll of Christian adults found that 46 percent had reduced their giving. Nearly half of them cited the price of gasoline as a primary reason.
A spike in the price consumer goods or rising unemployment fears are calamities for the nation's charities. That's because the vast majority of giving in the United States—75 percent—comes from individuals, who are fretting over a host of concerns, including job stability, a sinking stock market, the cost of cereal, and the possibility of $5 per gallon gas by summer's end. "Uncertainty is the enemy of philanthropy," says Patrick Rooney of the Center on Philanthropy. "Even if philanthropy is a core value to you, in some ways it's a luxury good."
At the Central Union Mission in downtown Washington, donations have flat-lined after growing about 20 percent per year for the past 10 years. Rather than curtail its services, which include a food pantry and a summer camp program, the shelter has shrunk its staff of 40 to 30. "I have tried to take as much of the blow in the administrative areas as I could," Executive Director David Treadwell says. Employees are taking on additional duties, he says. One of his assistants is now handling volunteers and communications responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the cost of operating shelters and other programs is skyrocketing. Flood relief in the Midwest is costing the American Red Cross an extra $10,000 a day for fuel alone. At the Miami Rescue Mission, electric, gas, and food bills are all rising, forcing the mission to postpone replacement of old equipment. A Catholic Charities agency in Springfield, Mass., is bearing the brunt of a 30 percent increase in the cost of providing services, just as its clientele has jumped 50 percent over the last year. A similar agency in Knoxville, Tenn., is struggling to accommodate 1,500 more clients than it had last year.
The rise in food costs is also forcing more people into soup kitchens, which can barely afford to meet the demand. A soup kitchen in Colorado Springs has seen a jump from 450 to 650 meals a day, while a shelter in Omaha is overwhelmed by a sudden demand for food by the working poor. In the Appalachianregion of southeast Ohio, a network of missions operated by the Lutheran church has made providing food a priority over providing shelter. "We're allocating more resources toward food because that's the most basic need," says Tom Berry, director of the Faith Mission in Columbus, Ohio.
The sudden surge of demand is coming from an unexpected source: Working families. Typically, shelters and food pantries mostly assist folks stricken by mental illnesses, addiction, or temporary unemployment. In recent months, however, relief agencies have seen people who used to get by just fine. "We have people now showing up who are telling us, 'We ran out of money,' " Berry says. " 'We can't afford gas. My husband can't get to work. Can you help us?' " Other agencies report similar pleas for help with gas and utility bills and for rental assistance. "We're seeing first-time homeless individuals show up because of the economy," Berry says, "not necessarily an addiction or health issue." To accommodate the need, homeless shelters and other relief agencies are rationing their services. Utility bills, for instance, are less likely to be paid in full with cash assistance, and in a first for many agencies, some are diverting resources from other programs to help people pay for gas.
The grim economic forecast seems likely to undermine charitable work in the future. . But some experts in the field argue that's not necessarily the case. During the Great Depression, the Central United Mission in Washington saw its fundraising increase every year. "In hard times people become more conscious of and more sensitive to the poor," Treadwell says. "People may be more willing to sacrifice when they think the need is genuinely there." That day might be coming soon.
Corrected on 7/11/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of meals a food bank in Lake City, Fla. distributes. The agency now gives families a full three days of meals per week.