WOODBINE — Sara Bartleson spent Monday morning packing grocery bags to give to needy families for Thanksgiving Day.
The food bank at St. Casimir’s Roman Catholic Church had to scramble to fill its need this week after a corporate donor in Philadelphia withdrew its support.
The Woodbine Chamber of Commerce and local businesses came to the charity’s rescue to make sure that about 270 needy families in northern Cape May County will have a bounty on their table Thursday.
The charity serves 68 square miles around Woodbine, including rural pockets of Upper and Dennis townships.
“We live in America. Every American should have a turkey dinner. Nobody should go without,” Bartleson said. “You’re supposed to be giving thanks. Today, there’s a lot to be thankful for.”
But St. Casimir’s is hardly alone in its need. Food pantries across southern New Jersey said the demand for assistance has increased in the wake of the recession, putting a strain on their resources.
In Ocean County, more families are turning to charities such as the St. Francis Community Center on Long Beach Island for food or energy assistance.
This charity is in the Brant Beach section of Long Beach Township and serves the county from Lacey to Little Egg Harbor townships.
Christine Lill, director of family support services, said the center helped 1,269 needy people in September, up from 822 in September 2008. And 533 of those recipients were children.
“People who’ve never been in a food bank are coming in,” Lill said.
That was the case Monday, as the center ran out of prepared food baskets two hours before it closed. Volunteers packed more food, so no one was turned away, Lill said.
But the agency is at its limit in terms of donations.
“There’s a capacity of what we can ask the community to donate,” Lill said.
St. Francis and other food pantries are finding that while stretched, they’re meeting the demand. St. Francis has a surplus of federal utility and housing assistance it can distribute through the end of the year.
Donations to Sister Jean’s kitchen in Atlantic City have been slow in coming, said the Rev. John Scotland, executive director of the Friends of Jean Webster. Webster has been feeding Atlantic City’s poor for nearly 20 years, first out of her Indiana Avenue home and for the last 13 years from the Victory First Presbyterian Church.
By this time last year, the charity had received $65,000 to $70,000 in donations, Scotland said. So far this year, they have about $15,000. He hopes contributions will pick up after the Christmas newsletter goes out this week.
“We have a long way to go to hit our budgeted mark,” Scotland said.
Likewise, the United Way of Atlantic County is not sure whether it will reach its fundraising goal of $2.7 million this year, Executive Director John Emge said.
“It’s kind of like throwing the net out there right now and seeing what we can catch,” he said.
The organization has had mixed results. Some local campaigns have done well while others are merely keeping up with last year’s figures, he said.
“There have been no big, devastating losses — and that’s a good sign,” he said.
The Community Food Bank has been overwhelmed with need, according to program director Karen Meredith.
Requests are up about 38 percent over last year, she estimated. Meredith said she expects that number to grow by next week.
“That seems to grow every month,” Meredith said.
She helped distribute 500 turkeys with boxes of fixings Monday at A.C. Linens in Atlantic City.
“Donations are barely keeping up,” she said. “We’re now looking for a good week this week to help for Christmas.”
Employees at Atlantic City Electric will be delivering about 400 pounds of donated food today.
Every little bit helps, said Lisa Fisher, president of the Woodbine Chamber of Commerce.
“Times are tough. We as business owner are struggling,” she said. “You’re thankful you have food on the table. We focus on it around the holidays. But it’s something we should focus on all year long.”
Staff writers Michael Miller, Elaine Rose, Lynda Cohen, Thomas Barlas and W.F. Keough contributed to this report.