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Unprecedented hunger in the Lehigh Valley


April 6, 2009

[The following op-ed was published in The Morning Call. The Rev Bil Kuntze is executive director of New Bethany Ministries in South Bethlehem, an ecumenical ministry of the Diocese of Bethlehem]

Today's economic crisis is weighing heavily on nearly all Americans as jobs, lifestyles, housing and higher education are changed or at risk.

But for many Lehigh Valley residents, the severe drop in the national economy is leading to unprecedented need for food assistance, a basic element of human survival, from the area's food pantries. At New Bethany Ministries, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients who come for our noontime meal, which, for many is the only hot food they eat all day. There also is an increase in the number of households that receive grocery assistance from our food pantry.

In the last year, we have increased our on-site daily meals from an average of 125 guests per day to about 230. Last year, we distributed 3,172 grocery baskets, with at least a three-day supply of food for an entire household, providing an astounding 155,475 off-site meals. In 2009, the number of households receiving emergency grocery assistance from New Bethany Ministries may double.

The need for hunger relief is not peculiar to the Lehigh Valley. The nationwide financial crisis has led to reduced charitable giving by organizations, foundations and individuals to many not-for-profit organizations. Further, in Bethlehem alone, two food pantries,the South Bethlehem Neighborhood Center and a small church pantry, have closed recently. Their clients are now relying on the other hunger-relief programs, primarily at New Bethany Ministries, to help them during these trying times.

Those seeking hunger relief are not confined to the ''traditional'' audiences -- the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill -- who need services provided by New Bethany Ministries. Today, we are seeing a larger number of employed individuals than ever before. Their incomes are stretched thin with the costs of maintaining their households and with the underlying uncertainty of their jobs, or even the loss of them.

Therefore, they have been relying on New Bethany Ministries and other food pantries to help feed themselves and their families. And, while we have consistently served low-income households to supplement their food purchases, today we are supplying more than 8,500 pounds of food from our pantry each week, up from 5,000 pounds just one year ago, to our hungry neighbors.

We at New Bethany Ministries are thankful for the food drives held on our behalf throughout the year, and for the volunteers who staff our kitchen and our food pantry to help our neighbors in need. We have never turned away a hungry and needy person without a hearty meal or an ample supply of groceries. In these difficult times, we are hopeful that with the continued support of the community at large, we never will.

[The Rev. Bill Kuntze is executive director of New Bethany Ministries in South Bethlehem, which serves the poor, homeless and mentally ill. Its Web site is www.newbethanyministries.org]

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