Days before Thanksgiving, staff at the Comprehensive Community Action Program in Cranston was busy putting together holiday baskets and gift cards to give to families in need. At the same time, they are already gearing up for their annual Christmas programs like Adopt a Family and giving trees.
But downstairs, the scene is slightly less cheerful. In the program food pantry, three freezers are barren and shelves remain empty as CCAP struggles to meet the increased demands of a community that has fallen upon tough times.
“It’s getting more and more desperate. We’ve been getting cuts left and right for a while now, so we have to step up our efforts for fundraising and getting donations in,” said Joanne Gregory, social services director for CCAP.
She called the demand “intense,” and almost overwhelming.
“I’ve never seen it like that,” she said.
CCAP has offered food assistance since its inception, but the number of families visiting the pantry has skyrocketed over the past two years. CCAP now serves between 500 and 600 families every month, each able to visit the food pantry once per month.
“The increase in demand for food is a response to the economy. More and more people are reaching out for help as our resources are being cut, or in some cases, eliminated,” said Executive Director Joanne McGunagle.
She points out that the state’s unemployment rate is still high, and people are either at the point of exhausting their unemployment benefits or taking lower paying jobs in order to bring in any income. Families that once considered themselves middle- or upper-income are now finding themselves in a low-income bracket, utilizing social services for the first time.
“People are coming to us from all areas of the city, not just the traditional low-income pockets. These are your neighbors, your children’s friends, your relatives,” McGunagle said. “The community can help by donating directly to CCAP with either food or cash donations. We guarantee that 100 percent of all donations are used for direct service to those in need.”
While some supplies are donated by local businesses, and more food items come from a monthly shipment from the USDA, individual contributions have historically been crucial to CCAP food assistance operations, especially since some major business donors have closed in recent years.
Cranston schools continue to be a major source of donations, often running food drives for CCAP, but Gregory says donations are down across the board.
At one time, CCAP used to provide 600 Thanksgiving food baskets to families in need. This year, roughly 200 families will be served – a significant number, but a drop nonetheless.
Scott Dodd, the administrative aide who oversees the food pantry, has intake appointments booked into the middle of December. Gregory notes that these appointments are not a quick rubberstamp for applicants, either. Applicants must provide proof of residency and proof of income, including any unemployment or retirement benefits, to ensure they meet the income guidelines.
“When people come here looking for food, we don’t just take their name and address down and give them a bag of food. We do a full intake and figure out, ‘Why have you come here for food?’” she said.
Once that reason has been identified, CCAP is able to connect the individual with other services that could get them back on their feet. If someone has been laid off, CCAP provides job training and education to make them a more competitive job candidate. If they’re suffering from an injury or illness, CCAP directs them to one of their community health centers across the state. If they are struggling to pay the bills, the agency provides financial stability counseling – all resources that Gregory says put them “on the right road to becoming self-sufficient.”
She added that the financial literacy program has been particularly successful, demonstrating better money management habits and getting them to be more aware of how they are spending their money.
“We really try to make an impact on their lives,” she said. “It’s a very comprehensive approach to helping people. It’s not just taking care of one problem.”
When it comes to money, times are tough for Rhode Islanders, but also for agencies like CCAP. Funding has been cut in many directions, and Gregory tries to avoid dipping into her general fund, except for crisis situations, like providing emergency medication or paying hotel costs for a mother and child who are fleeing an abusive relationship. It has become increasingly difficult to avoid dipping into CCAP’s bank account, however, and Gregory is making a plea for the public to step up their support of the agency.
“People are holding on to what they have because they’re unsure of what the future brings,” she said.
“Everybody is struggling, but I need donations,” she stressed.
As a result of the decline in donations, families utilizing the food pantry are being given lighter bags. The chicken and meats that were once a staple are becoming increasingly rare.
“We’ll help everybody that comes in here; we might just not be able to give them as much as we’d like,” Gregory said. “The cupboard is bare.”
Food donations can be dropped off at CCAP Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Families can also sign up for Adopt a Family or pick up a giving tree tag at participating businesses. For more information, visit www.ComCAP.org or call 467-9610.