Use of Homer's food pantry on the rise

  • Kaye Fariday helps a student from Fireweed Academy bag food at the Homer Food Pantry on Sept. 26 at Homer United Methodist Church.
  • Rich Evanco, Ron Brahm, Tim Steinberg and Michael E. Gradney Jr. work in the kitchen at the Homer Food Pantry on Sept. 26 at Homer United Methodist Church.
  • Michael E. Gradney Jr. works at the Homer Food Pantry on Sept. 26 at Homer United Methodist Church.
  • Diana Jeska bags apples at the Homer Food Pantry on Sept. 26 at Homer United Methodist Church.

The Homer Community Food Pantry experienced a 115 percent increase in people seeking food assistance between 2013 and 2015.

Though the food pantry’s customers have not reached the highs seen in the years following the 2008 recession, a significant spike started in 2014 and continues to climb. The food pantry’s record year for visitors was 2009, when it provided for 38,723 adults and children.

The food pantry keeps track of the number of people who visit each week, but does not keep records of unique visits as the service is based on confidentiality. For example, a person who visits the food pantry six times in a year would be counted as six visits in the records.

The food pantry numbers dipped low in 2013, when it served 9,850 adults and children. The number rose to 17,345 adults and children in 2014 and 21,212 in 2015. Homer Community Food Pantry director Diana Jeska expects the 2016 numbers, which will be calculated at the end of the year, to be even higher.

Jeska said that the number of people seeking help at the food pantry each week have not slowed down, even as the end of the summer season has lowered the population in the Homer area. She also is seeing new faces of families who have recently come to Homer and need assistance.

However, the average monthly caseloads for public assistance in southern Kenai Peninsula communities — Anchor Point, Fritz Creek, Halibut Cove, Homer, Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik, Port Graham and Seldovia — have remained steady or are in decline. Between 2011 and 2013, the average caseloads for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rose from 592 to 694, but has since steadily dropped down to 606. Caseloads for Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP) and Alaska Public Assistance (APA) have stayed relatively the same over the last five years. ATAP caseload averages fluctuate between the high 40s and low 60s, and APA caseloads have stayed in the mid-400s, give or take 20 cases, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Assistance Caseload and Benefit History report for July 2006-June 2016.

There are many households that receive too much monthly income to receive SNAP benefits, but still find it difficult to meet their food needs, said Alaska Public Assistance Program Officer Christina Cross. The monthly gross, or before taxes, income limit for a household of two people is $2,169. A household that grosses more than the income limit may still make less than they need to make ends meet after taxes.

“If that household receives $2,200 monthly gross income, they will not be eligible for SNAP benefits,” Cross said. “This same household may only net $1,800 monthly income but be responsible for $1,700 in monthly expenses such as rent, utilities, car payment, car insurance, etc. This may leave the household in a situation where all of their monthly food needs are not met without assistance from the food pantry.”

Households eligible for public assistance also might not apply and instead use the food pantry to supplement their income.

“Although we attempt to encourage households to take advantage of our programs when they are eligible, there may be households that choose not to apply,” Cross said. “Some people still find a stigma in applying for public assistance benefits.”

The pantry never sees fewer than 100 families each week, and they aren’t necessarily the same families each week, Jeska said.

“People have a concept that if you go to the pantry, you go every week. But not everyone uses it every week,” Jeska said.

The food pantry depends on donations from both individuals and businesses in the community. Grocery stores Safeway and Save-U-More donate products including milk, yogurt, doughnuts, breads and produce, Jeska said. However, the pantry never has enough milk to fulfill demand. Local farmers also bring donations to the pantry in the summer months as various crops are harvested.

“It’s a blessing to have vegetables from June to September,” Jeska said.

Though the pantry will see an increase in donations in the upcoming holiday months, throughout the year the pantry buys canned foods and other necessary items when its donated supplies run low. Money provided by donations, primarily from the Homer Foundation Community Chest, help supplement those supplies.

Other regular donations are received from the Homer Senior Center, K Bay Caffe, Duncan House Diner , The Bagel Shop and the Homer Theatre — everything from soup and spaghetti sauce to eggs and popcorn.

“We really do have a giving community,” Jeska said. “It is most encouraging. People give in abundance. It makes you feel like they, like they got your back.”

The food pantry will have its annual Empty Bowls fundraiser on Nov. 4, where community members can buy bowls made by local artisans in the Homer community filled with soup.

Anna Frost can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.

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