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Hungry holidays

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Marian Houses Russel Flora (left), Frank Crosson (right) and another volunteer get busy on a recent 15-turkey Friday. - JOHN DICKER
  • John Dicker
  • Marian Houses Russel Flora (left), Frank Crosson (right) and another volunteer get busy on a recent 15-turkey Friday.

It's six minutes past noon and Marian House has clocked in 334 clients. By volunteer Russell Flora's estimate, they'll have surpassed their daily average of 450 by the time doors close at 1:30.

A service of Catholic Charities, Marian House, across the street from St. Mary's Cathedral on Bijou Street, is the largest soup kitchen in Colorado Springs, dishing up one hot meal a day, every day, to whoever needs it -- no questions asked.

Clients, as the volunteers call them, are scanned in like any other grocery checkout item. It's nothing sinister, Flora explains, merely a way of getting a demographic breakdown of who they serve.

White, black, Latino, seniors, and in an adjoining "family room," four children and an infant devour everything from turkey casserole to coffee and Danishes. In Colorado Springs, the hungry are a diverse lot.

Three pallets left

Routinely cited indicators claim the American economy is no longer flatlined. With unemployment down and warehouse orders up, many media outlets have optimistically declared we're well on the road to "recovery."

In reality, folks on the front lines of the fight against hunger say, in Colorado Springs at least, evidence of a rebound is nowhere to be found. And as a result, food supplies are dwindling as demand escalates.

Care and Share Food Bank, the local distribution center for soup kitchens like Marian House, dispenses emergency food to more than 400 agencies throughout southern Colorado. Care and Share spokeswoman Scottie Bibb says that last week the distribution center nearly ran out of donated food, which makes up the lion's share of their supply.

"It's the stuff that we distribute 60,000 pounds of a month that you can throw in a box and feed a family of four all week," said Bibb "And we had three pallets left."

Bibb says her organization's goal is to amass enough donated items to keep their shelves full through March.

"I know everybody says the economy is rebounding, but we haven't seen the effects of that." In fact, Bibb says her agencies are witnessing the consequence of last year's layoffs with new families seeking food. In addition they're also witnessing a rise in military families seeking help, people who didn't expect their loved ones would be overseas so long and whose reservist pay is not enough to make ends meet.

The holidays can make the bind all the more pressing. "People don't have to worry about buying presents during the year," Bibb said. "Now people are faced with, 'Well, I have this $20, am I going to buy food or something to put under the tree for my child?'"

Who are the hungry?

Marian House's clients, with many exceptions, look a lot like the public face of homelessness -- haggard men in haggard clothes with bearded faces that throw a monkey wrench in any attempt to approximate their ages.

On the other side of the hunger coin, Scottie Bibb claims most of her agencies, which include the Boys and Girls Club, The Salvation Army, and Silver Key Services, often escape the public's radar.

"A very small percentage of those we serve are what we typically think of as people needing emergency food -- namely homeless men," Bibb said.

According to a 2001 survey of Care and Share's 400 clients, 47 percent of those seeking food assistance had a household member who was employed, while only 14 percent were homeless.

Marian House's Russell Flora explains that many of his regulars are not exactly homeless. Many, he says, live in their cars.

"A lot of them have enough money to pay for where they live, but they don't have enough money to pay for their food," said Flora.

If you want to eat, you can eat

Standing next to Flora is a man in a beige workman's outfit who clearly had collected enough money for a few drinks. The intoxicated man was quietly ushered out the door by security guard Leroy Jones.

"That's about the only people who we'll keep out," Flora said. "There's no requirement; if you want to eat you can eat."

And eat they do. Marian House's director Frank Crosson says the number of people who eat from his kitchen continues to rise. Five years ago, Crosson says, the kitchen served 126,000 meals; this year they expect to top 150,000.

Flora, who has been volunteering at Marian House for five years, concurs.

"When I first started, if we hit 300 that was a large group. ... We'd have soup and maybe one casserole." But these days, Flora and his 30 volunteers routinely prepare 10 casseroles, 15 turkeys and 60 gallons of soup, among other entrees.

Flora and Crosson say they've long toyed with the idea of publishing a soup kitchen cookbook, which would certainly feature Flora's signature dish of ground turkey casserole with a potato base.

Flora notes that his cooking is not popular with children, whose numbers can reach up to 50 per meal during summer months.

"It's hard to cook for 400 people and kids," he says. "And I've given up trying to cook for vegetarians."

--John Dicker

For information on how to donate food, contact Care and Share at 528-1247 or online at www.careandshare.org

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