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Tight Family Budgets Swell the Food Lines

Most families are stocking up this week on turkey and all the trimmings from the local grocery store. But for more and more families, there simply isn’t enough left in the budget to cover basic meal

Tight Family Budgets Swell the Food Lines

(Photo: The Helping Hand Church on Imperial Avenue distributes food, Alison St John/KPBS)

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Most families are stocking up this week on turkey and all the trimmings from the local grocery store.  But for more and more families, there simply isn’t enough left in the budget to cover basic meals, forget about a Thanksgiving feast.

KPBS reporter Alison St John went down to the Helping Hand Church on Imperial Avenue where hundreds of people lined up for the chance to get some free food.

The line stretches half a block (view photo) , curves around the corner and then up a hill. Mothers carry babies in their arms and try to keep their youngsters on the sidewalk and off the street.

Everyone has either a big plastic bag, a cardboard box, or a push cart to carry away the food they’ll pick up when the doors open at noon.

Bell : They start lining up at 8:30 this morning.


Pecolia Bell (view photo) has run food distribution at Helping Hand Church for more than a decade… she’s watched the lines getting longer and longer.

Bell This is just a little bigger crowd, because  of the holidays, and a lot of people got laid off from work. Some people call me and tell me they just got laid off from work a week ago otr two weeks ago and they need some food, you know. 

Chris Leah is at the back of the line, looking cold in her hooded sweat shirt, shy and out of place

Leah: This is my first time…

Leah’s husband lost his job recently and that had devastating consequences.

Leah: He works in construction and right now it’s very slow..  we lost our house… it hurts, but I have my kids and that’s the main thing.

Leah and her family lived in their house for nine years before losing it to foreclosure. Now they are squeezing in with relatives, moving from house to house to avoid outstaying their welcome, and hoping to pick up some free food to help out.

Closer to the front of the line, 11-year-old Ray Leone and his 5-year-old sister Lacy are sitting on the pavement, playing with a gaggle of younger cousins (view photo) .

Ray Leone: I’ve been waiting here cos my family is very low on money

Lacey: We have a little bit of food at home

Ray: and that’s why we came here to get some food but we’ve been waiting here a long time but it doesn’t matter, at least we’re getting food

Lacey: and we hope we get turkey... we have to eat turkeys, turkey ham and ham and we put a slice on pineapple on top of the turkey.  

Ray and Lacey’s father, Leonardo Leone, says even though he’s got a job as a security guard, it’s hard to keep the bills paid and food on the table. He says many of his neighbors are in the same boat.

Leone: It’s the economy, it hurts us in the long run.You see all the people out here today, it’s just a little handle full out here because we’re so many more out there,. But thanks for that and we’ll have a good Thanks giving and we’ll see what they give us today

Up at the font of the line, boxes of broccoli and onions are piled high on the pavement, distributed by the Department of Agriculture through the San Diego Food Bank.

Travis Frazee is unloading pallets of food donated through Second Harvest by large companies like Delmonte and Albertsons. 

Frazee: There’s sour cream, there’s instant potatoes, crackers, cereal, drinks .. 

Pecolia Bell opens the doors and people start filing through, holding out their bags and boxes.

Bell Keep the line flowing and come back around

Volunteers drop in jars of spaghetti sauce, boxes of protein drinks, diapers and soap.

Gary Macdonald is with Second Harvest, now renamed Feeding America. He says even with three Food Banks in San Diego County distributing to community groups like Helping Hand Church, the need outstrips what they provide.  And the demographic of those standing in line now is changing from those who historically needed help.

Macdonald:  The homeless population typically is about 12%, 10% are elderly, two thirds of them are female, women and children, and most of them are working families  - but we’re finding more and more working families are coming asking for food.  

Pecolia Bell sees all sort of people in her food line these days.

Bell: All I can tell you is, we serve a lot of people out here. The old people - if you look through the line, some people have the walkers or the oxygen tanks on their back, and they come in here and try to carry this food and I have a hard time telling them they need to bring help with them, cos it’s hard for these old people. But we try to serve ‘em well, and I just do the best I can with what they give us.

New people keep joining the line. It stretches down the block and around the corner for several hours, till Pecolia Bell finally closes the doors at dusk.   

Alison St John, KPBS News.