TAMPA — Stacey Efaw doesn't like to go into the back room where she stores food at the nonprofit Emergency Care Help Organization in Brandon.
Before the holidays, it's usually stuffed with boxes of nonperishable items. But this year, large voids dot the shelves and signs with bold lettering declare "out of flour," "out of jelly."
"It stresses me out," said Efaw, E.C.H.O.'s executive director.
During the holiday season, charities across the Tampa Bay area offer extra assistance to those in need. But what happens when there are fewer donations and more people seeking aid?
Last year was tough for many nonprofits, and this year is worse, several regional directors said. Some don't know if they can meet the need.
Metropolitan Ministries has reported it's $250,000 short of what it needs to serve families this season.
The holiday tents have been raised, but ministries spokeswoman Ana Maria Mendez said they have enough food for only a few days.
"We're doing everything we can, getting the message out there," she said.
Metropolitan Ministries' Pasco satellite, Joining Hands Community Mission, has only half of the food needed to start serving today, the Rev. Dan Campbell, its director, said last week.
Still, people keep coming for assistance.
At Tampa's Salvation Army center, 6,000 families signed up for the Angel Tree program, in which donors pick the name of a local child and buy them presents. That's up from 4,500 last year, development director Moira Hinson said.
In Pinellas, the Salvation Army has registered 1,100 families for holiday assistance, development director Lisa Howard said.
At E.C.H.O., Efaw has seen an 11 percent increase in visitors since last year, which itself was a record year, she said.
Last Tuesday, a line of people seeking food and clothes stretched out of the building. In years past, E.C.H.O. volunteers handed out turkeys to every visitor in November. Now, families of three or more can get a turkey. The rest get chickens.
To meet the increased need, Metropolitan Ministries plans to serve 29,000 families in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Last year it served 26,000. To reach that goal with fewer donations, it's working with more charities than ever before in an effort called Compassion in Action, Mendez said.
But if more donations don't come in, employees may be forced to put families on waiting lists, she said. And though there are small signs the economy may be turning around, Mendez said she doesn't expect to see much impact this season.
"The holidays are still going to be challenging, no matter what, because of the uncertainty," she said.
Recent surveys indicate she's right.
A poll commissioned by New World Vision shows that a majority of Americans plan to spend less on presents this year, and most hope to increase charitable giving, but only after the economy improves.
At the same time, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for 2008, released this month, show that more American households — about 15 percent — were "food insecure," which means they sometimes didn't have enough to eat.
At E.C.H.O., some of the people lining up for help used to donate food and clothes, Efaw said.
"We've had a lot of our donors lose their jobs," she said.
Last week, Jody Thomson, 42, sifted through the men's dress shirts at E.C.H.O. Thomson, a laid-off plumber from Lithia, said it was his first time going to a charity for aid. He wanted to find a nice shirt for job interviews.
"It's hard out there," he said.
He left with new clothes, canned food and a Thanksgiving chicken.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.