The soup du jour at the St. Vincent de Paul Society soup kitchen Monday was chicken noodle with vegetable, and the main course was hot wings.
Hooters restaurant had donated 90 cases to the Clearwater soup kitchen, and executive director Mary Lou Guthart seemed relieved. It's not like she can go out and buy groceries to feed 300 people a day.
North Pinellas food banks will take every donation they can get. The economic slowdown is driving down cash donations and driving in people who have been laid off, foreclosed upon, squeezed by rising grocery prices, hit by soaring fuel costs — or all of the above.
Demand is up 20 to 25 percent over last year, according to food bank and soup kitchen administrators.
"Your next door neighbor is food-insecure,'' said Conway Jensen, president of America's Second Harvest of Tampa Bay.
Because that organization gets its food from the America's Second Harvest national food bank network, the largest charitable hunger-relief organization in the United States, as well as from other sources, it is well-stocked.
But Jensen said she's noticed a decline in donations of meat and canned goods in general.
That's why she was pleased when Smithfield Packing Lykes Division in Plant City gave 600 hams to ensure that people have a nice meal on Easter.
In Clearwater, Lisa Matzner, director of development for Religious Community Services food bank, said she is seeing 20 new families a day, up 25 percent.
Meanwhile, "corporate donations are down very much,'' she said.
Matzner said she is counting on the national postal carriers' Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive on May 10 to stock the shelves.
"We're holding our breath,'' Matzner said.
So is Kip Corriveau, director of the Salvation Army's social services program and a member of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.
He said he's "counting every can.''
Donations from an annual food drive the Clearwater agency holds with the public schools in the fall were down 25 percent.
"It becomes the perfect storm,'' he said. "The food (contributions) have gone down and the requests have gone up.''
At Christmas, 1,600 families received holiday assistance from the Salvation Army, up from 1,300 to 1,400 last year.
The agency recently decided to increase its rent and utilities assistance budget by about 20 percent to fill the need.
And for the first time, it was forced to hold an Easter food drive. It brought in about 300 bags of sustenance.
"We have enough to get us through May,'' Corriveau said.
Ross Fraser, spokesman for America's Second Harvest, said the organization put out a call to action at Thanksgiving "because we knew we'd be 15-million pounds short this year.''
He said food industry giving is down mostly because of increased efficiencies. There is simply less food brought to market.
It's not easy to even find dented cans anymore.
The biggest drop has been in U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities, the so-called "wheel of cheese'' from the government. The availability of that surplus food is down 70 percent in the last four years, Fraser said.
That's bad news for America's Second Harvest, which delivers to 205 food banks all over the United States — the giant warehouses — that, in turn, send it to 50,000 soup kitchens and pantries.
"Twenty-five-million Americans come to us for food,'' said Fraser, who is based in Chicago. And that number is increasing.
"Last year, we served 125 meals per day,'' said Wanda Weber, executive director of the Shepherd Center in Tarpon Springs, which gets much of its food from Second Harvest. "We are now serving 200 meals per day.''
About 600 families get tuna, canned fruit and pasta from its food pantry every month.
Many of Weber's clients are former day laborers who can't find work in the construction and landscaping businesses and parents who make minimum wage.
Jim Gorecki, 53, doesn't even make that much. He was eating hot wings at St. Vincent de Paul on Monday. He moved to Pinellas County eight years ago from Pennsylvania and said he was recently laid off from his job as a painter at Shephard's Beach Resort after three months.
He now lives in the woods.
He said if soup kitchens can't feed all the hungry anymore, there will be dire consequences.
"If that happens, crime will go up,'' Gorecki said. "People get desperate. The have to eat.''
Meanwhile, Guthart is economizing wherever she can. Recently, she cut back on the use of paper plates.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.