Three quarters of a million pounds of food have been donated in the past six months to the Merced County Food Bank from farmers, retailers and organizations.
That includes canned goods, pasta, dairy products, cereals, peanut butter and much more, according to Phyllis Legg, executive director of the nonprofit.
Just one problem.
Around the same time last year, the food bank had received one million pounds of donated food -- in one month. "The economy is the major factor right now," she said of the shortfall. "Because of the loss of jobs, there are a lot of businesses closing; the job market is down."
Moreover, individual Mercedians aren't donating as often. Legg said about one or two people donate food weekly. "I think the poverty level being as high as it is, people are more in need of food than giving food," she said. "I just believe they are having some tough times and they don't have anything to donate."
Tough times indeed.
In a city where 27 percent of the population is below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Mercedians are clutching their purse strings tighter because of the recession and a staggering unemployment rate.
According to numbers released this week, Merced's poverty level is almost double the national average.
Elsewhere, other service organizations, such as the Merced County Rescue Mission, have seen a big drop in donations. Herb Opalek, executive director, said the mission is $69,000 below where it was last year.
"Many of the senior citizens who generally donate cannot afford (it)," he said. "Families are being more conservative with their donations. There have been a lot of people whose property has been devalued but their mortgages haven't. We are seeing elderly people who are writing to us to say they can't afford food."
The food bank receives private donations from people as well as larger contributions from farmers, organizations, local supermarkets, retailers around town and surrounding areas. In turn, a total of 78 emergency feeding programs get food from the food bank warehouse and distribute it to the public.
Legg said she has seen a 20 percent decrease in produce donations from farmers this year.
Part of that may be because water was cut off on the Westside. "There was no water for the farmers to plant," she said.
Opalek noted that "canned good donations are down because families are buying from week to week and not like they used to on a monthly basis."
The number of volunteers at the mission, which aims to feed and shelter homeless people, stands at about 109; last year at this time, there were 117.
At the mission, Opalek estimated they serve about 100 to 200 meals at dinner, 35 for lunch and 65 for breakfast daily.
Legg estimates the food bank -- with all its programs combined -- helps about 88,000 people in Merced a month. "That's who we take care of, it's the people at the poverty level, families, senior citizens," she said.
Anita Lyons, 42, who was performing community service Wednesday, said she hopes she can stay on and work for the nonprofit.
Legg said the emergency feeding programs the food bank works with have seen a 48 percent hike in the number of people it's helping. Said Legg: "Every food bank is crying."
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.