Most people look forward to stuffing their bellies over the Thanksgiving weekend, but those who run Orange County’s depleted food banks are working frantically to both stock up during the high season for food donations and keep up with an unprecedented demand.

Food is flying off warehouse shelves at Orange County food banks at record levels, according to managers of several nonprofit organizations.

“Maybe at no time in our history have we seen such a gap [between supply and demand],” said Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank in Garden Grove.

That food bank helps supply churches, civic groups and about 375 county food pantries and soup kitchens run by other nonprofits. “Today we simply do not have enough to meet the needs of the community,” Lowry said.

It’s not that people in Orange County aren’t generous with their donations of food and money. They are, according to the managers, who said donations at a minimum have kept pace with previous years.

The problem is that after four years of high unemployment and a dismal economy, doing as well as last year isn’t enough.

Food bank managers said they rely on the Thanksgiving to Christmas season — when attention is focused on giving — for donations of canned goods and money that enable them to feed people in the months of slow contributions, like June and July.

Ryan Burris, spokesman for the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin, said, “You can definitely tell the economy has hit people hard.”

He said in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the charity provided services, which could be food, clothing or some basic medical care, to 19,446 people. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, he said, the number jumped to 23,899.

Orange County’s Food Insecurity

Orange County, with a population of slightly more than 3 million, has about 379,000 adults, about 13 percent of the population, who are “food insecure,” according to a 2009 study by the California Health Interview Survey at UCLA.

That puts the county second statewide behind Contra Costa County in the proportion of its adults who struggle to obtain adequate nutrition.

“In spite of our reputation for being an affluent community, many people who live here struggle to afford our high cost of housing and struggle to survive off of the wages paid in many of our service industry jobs,” said Lowry.

Those at risk for going hungry often earn too much to qualify for federal assistance programs, according to the study.

Share Our Selves, a Costa Mesa nonprofit, has a food bank and also offers additional services, including medical and dental examinations and financial assistance for utility and rent payments.

“Every day we have first-time customers here — a long line of them” said Carolyn Gregg, donor development associate at Share Our Selves. “Every day. Every single day.”

Orange County has no year-round shelters for its homeless, and last year the winter shelters in the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana closed at the end of March — weeks earlier than expected — because necessary federal funding came up short.

This year the armories, which offer overnight housing as well as dinner and breakfast for all homeless, are scheduled to open for the winter on Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Dec. 2 in Santa Ana, said Larry Haynes, director of Mercy House, which holds the contract to run the shelters.

They’ll stay open “until the money runs out,” he said.

On Thanksgiving Day, an estimated 20,000 people are expected at the annual dinner in the Honda Center that is organized by We Give Thanks, the nonprofit founded as the result of Anaheim restaurant owner Frank Garcia’s 25-year effort to provide dinners for the needy.

Until five years ago, the Thanksgiving event served the needy under big tents in the streets outside his La Casa Garcia restaurant, usually providing dinners for around 800 people.

But now Anaheim hotels, restaurants and the Honda Center pitch in, and lines extend for blocks as people wait to get inside.

“I get it from my Mom,” Garcia said of his efforts to help others. “When I was a kid, my mother used to give my neighbors and others food.

“I think we have to train our youth that we have to give back. There’s food for everybody in the world. All we need to do is share.”

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