The demand for free meals at a non-profit soup kitchen in Ithaca has surged in the last year, according to representatives of the organization.
Now in its 29th year, Loaves & Fishes provides free meals and more to those in need without discrimination, according to its mission statement. The organization seeks to meet the needs of homeless, unemployed and underemployed Ithacans.
In part because of the economic downturn, Loaves & Fishes saw 3,000 more people visit their Cayuga Street location for free meals this year than in 2011, representatives of the organization said.
More than 37,000 meals were served by Loaves & Fishes during the last year, according to Rev. Christina Culver, executive director of Loaves & Fishes. The number of people seeking free meals from the organization has continued to increase since 2010 and “represents a huge jump” relative to past years, Culver said.
“It has arguably the busiest kitchen in Ithaca,” said Woonsung Kang, a local volunteer.
Culver said the increase in meal requests is partly a result of unemployment and cuts in the budgets of social service agencies in the City of Ithaca, which she said have caused some residents’ economic conditions to worsen.
“People are just having a hard time finding jobs, and there’s a fair amount of people who have physical or mental health challenges which make it difficult for them to hold a steady job,” she said.
Echoing Culver’s sentiments, Ron Poley, advocacy coordinator at Loaves & Fishes, said he thinks the increase in people requesting meals is a “sign of the times.”
Aloja Airewele, who works with Loaves & Fishes, said that the economic downturn has also hurt seniors who are on a fixed income.
Many elderly people now come to Loaves & Fishes and other food pantries for their meals, he said. Others are being forced to hold multiple jobs while leaving their children in child care facilities, adding to their stress.
“The pantries empty out much [more] quickly and you can see the long lines of people coming for lunch,” he said.
Many staff members stressed that the rising demand for Loaves & Fishes’ services does not look like it will stop growing anytime soon.
“There’s a tremendous need, and that doesn’t seem to be going away,” Culver said.
In response to the increase in demand for its services, Loaves & Fishes has been working to keep the community informed about the services it offers, Airewele said.
The non-profit, however, is facing the “ongoing challenge” of keeping up with the rise in food prices, Culver said.
Airewele said that contributions from the Ithaca community have helped Loaves & Fishes cope with the rise in food prices and demand for the organization’s services. He commended the community for its “effusive response” to the organization’s call for help.
The organization is largely volunteer-driven, with 20 to 30 people working daily in the kitchen and 10 advocates helping individual guests with tasks like finding housing or employment.
“It’s very common for us to help our guests obtain public assistance,” Culver said.
Loaves & Fishes also provides limited emergency funds, meal coupons and basic non-
perishable foods in crisis situations.
To many, though, Loaves & Fishes is more than just a charity.
Long time volunteer, Buck Johnson, said that “it’s not just a typical soup kitchen.”
He added that Loaves & Fishes is “a community where anybody can come and eat and [get] away from the stigma.”
The kitchen is also a “safe house” where people can come to find solace and company, Poley said.
For those who are lonely, Loaves & Fishes can also become what Aloja described as an “asylum.”
“A lot of our guests are completely alone … Loaves & Fishes becomes their community, and when they need help, they turn to us,” Culver said. “Even if someone doesn’t actually need a free meal, we still want [them] to come.”
Original Author: Kritika Oberoi