GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) – Kate King gets emotional when she thinks about the new people who keep showing up at her church, in need of groceries.
"Every week, it's growing. The new people that have never had to ask for food," said King. "We run about 60 to 70 families a week."
The food pantry at Gateway United Methodist Church in Gulfport, along with 90 other churches and non-profit agencies across south Mississippi, receive a majority of their grocery supplies from the Bay Area Food Bank in Alabama.
On Thursday, representatives gathered at the church to look at the challenge of meeting a significant surge in demand for emergency food, especially when federal stimulus money runs out later this year.
"When that happens, the stimulus food that we've been given, hundreds of thousands of pounds for south Mississippi will stop," said David Reaney, Executive Director of the Bay Area Food Bank. "The need is greater than the availability. So we are constantly looking for more food."
The recession and rising unemployment have forced more families to line-up at soup kitchens and food pantries. The Bay Area Food Bank reports a 30 percent increase in the need for food assistance last year. So the agency turned to major grocery store chains, asking them to donate food and household supplies.
"While we don't want the government food to go away, we think that the generosity of the grocers is going to help us ensure that we don't run out of food in the future," said Reaney.
In years past, only ten stores donated groceries to the Bay Area Food Bank. But since July of 2009, 120 more stores have contributed groceries, including Walmart, Winn Dixie and Rouses. That means an additional three million pounds of food every year.
And this year, the Publix grocery store chain in Alabama and Florida agreed to donate groceries to the Food Bank. The food will help keep pantry shelves stocked in south Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, until the recession turns around.
"That is great!" said Kate King. ""It means extra food. When they get extra, they give us extra. They are a tremendous help to us."
In 2009, the Bay Area Food Bank distributed nearly 12 million pounds of food, laundry and paper products to its member agencies in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Thursday's conference in Gulfport also focused on food safety, proper record keeping, and networking.