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Drive around the Eastern Shore of Maryland or coastal Delaware, and one will see acre upon acre of farms growing corn, soybeans, and other crops. But despite all this seeming agricultural bounty, the coast has a major problem when it comes to the number of people struggling to put food on the table.
A new Gallup poll reports that Delaware is third in the nation — behind Alabama and Mississippi — when it comes to the percentage of people struggling to get enough to eat.
That statistic isn't surprising to Tom Stearns, president of the Board of the Cape Henlopen Food Basket in Rehoboth Beach, Dela. He says his food pantry provided food to 10,000 people last year. The fall and winter are always the toughest months for his clients as seasonal jobs dry up.
"Some of the people affected are those who have worked in lawn services, and that begins to die down in the fall," he says. "And some of our motels and hotels close down, and some of our restaurants close down, so it's kind of a lessening of places to make some money."
One of those struggling to make ends meet is 21-year-old Sean, who took two buses to come to the Cape Henlopen Food Basket to get groceries for himself and his mother.
"We were homeless for eight months, and she lost her job at Chrysler, so it was really hard," he said. "So the state and the food banks, they really help out a lot."
Keeping up with the demand for food aid isn't always easy. The Maryland Food Bank's Eastern Shore warehouse in Salisbury distributes food to smaller food pantries across the region; in fiscal year 2011 alone, it gave away 3.5 million pounds of food. Jennifer Small, the manager of that 13,000-square-foot facility, says things are going well — for the moment.
"We're still having to purchase a lot of food, but the governor's grant is now kicking in," she said. "We just got done with our Maryland emergency food grant, which entitles us to subsidies, so that we could put more out to the community. So what you're seeing now is just that influx of donations from outside sources."
Local farms are also donating a lot of produce to food banks right now, so clients are receiving more fresh fruits and vegetables than they might otherwise.
Still, people like Tom Stearns worry about what will happen in the long term. Most of the people who work at places like the Cape Henlopen Food Basket are volunteers, many retired and getting on in years. The organization needs a new generation to step in and help out, he says.
"We have about 90 to 95 volunteers, and all of us are a bit long in the tooth," he says. "I'm concerned that we will have the same devotion in volunteers coming on."
[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Sad DC" by Mogwai from Happy Songs for Happy People]