Berkeley Food Pantry offers emergency food supplies to local residents. Photos: Berkeley Food Pantry

At a time when an increasing number of families need help putting a meal on the table, the Berkeley Food Pantry has a severe financial shortfall that threatens to jeopardize its emergency aid program.

If a promised check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, doesn’t show up within days, the pantry may not be able to help hungry Berkeley and Albany residents who line up for two bags of groceries later this week.

The 42-year-old program, which operates three afternoons a week out of the Berkeley Friends Church on Sacramento Street, has just $190 in its account, said director Bill Shive. In less dire times pantry expenses amounted to $3,000 a month, though it has spent as much as $5,000 a month on both perishables and pantry items to provide sustenance to people in need, said Shive.

Last year, the pantry received federal funding totaling $24,000, in two payments. This year their funds, like other aid groups, have been cut 40%. But the pantry has yet to receive any money from FEMA in 2011, though a check for half the program’s funding ($8,400) is said to be on its way.

And even if the money does come, the organization is so seriously strapped for cash — it has borrowed $6,000 from the Alameda County Community Food Bank this year to cover costs, said Shive  — that it’s likely to be an extremely lean time leading into the holiday season. “What this means is that we’ll have less food, less variety, and we’ll be able to help fewer people,” he said.

The program serves about 700 households a month, which represents over 2,000 people — a figure that has doubled in the three years since director Shive took over.

A volunteer at the Berkeley Food Pantry bags produce for recipients

Food for the program comes via the Alameda County Community Food Bank and through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that has also had its budget cut, said Shive. Frozen chickens, ham, or fish are largely a thing of the past and milk, eggs, and butter are hard to come by too, he added. The bags are designed to feed a family of four for four days. On Monday groceries included fresh produce, cereal, peanut butter, pasta, bread, and canned goods.

The pantry receives bread donations from Acme and Semifreddi’s bakeries, and the Safeway on Shattuck Avenue donates groceries, which are delivered by a retired employee who fills his trunk full of food from the supermarket a couple of times a week. When a reporter stopped by the food bank yesterday a woman dropped off bags of apples from her trees.

The pantry has a loyal and reliable group of volunteers and a waiting list of people who would like to help. What it needs more than anything, however, is financial donations.

“We see all kinds — the homeless, the uneducated and those with PhDs, people who have lost their jobs, grandparents caring for grandchildren, low-income seniors, families that have combined households to cut costs,” said Shive. “We used to ask for a referral from a social service agency but now we just require an I.D. We figured if people need to line up for food, we’ll give them groceries but we do have them sign in as it is limited to one household per month.”

Shive, 74, who lives with his partner and their adopted 9-year-old son in East Oakland, knows what it’s like to fall on hard times. He closed a local consignment business he’d run for years due to rising rent costs and found himself looking for work in 2008.

“When people line up outside I chat with them and you get a sense of their stories,” he said. “I get pretty emotional about it sometimes. There’s so much need out there. I don’t know how we can fill it.”

The food pantry isn’t the only emergency food organization that has seen a sharp increase in need for its services at a time when funding for such programs are experiencing harsh cutbacks, according to a spokesperson for the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Another local group that feeds the needy, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, has seen demand for its hot meals swell some 30% over last year, said executive director Terrie Light, who confirmed that finding adequate protein sources is a particular challenge due to higher costs.

Despite being overworked and underfunded these charitable groups are looking for alternative ways to nourish the people they serve. The Berkeley Food Pantry is organizing a food drive among religious organizations, said Shive. And the Berkeley Food and Housing Project will host two performances of “Julia Child says ‘Bon Appetit!’” starring Linda Kenyon on October 29, as a benefit for its food programs. Tickets available here.

Information regarding donations to the Berkeley Food Pantry can be found on its website.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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