updated 10/27/2008 11:49:34 AM ET 2008-10-27T15:49:34

Harold Willams, a single father looking for work, stopped by the food pantry to pick up sandwich bread for his two boys. Jonathan Rose loaded his bags with tuna and milk. Retiree Vivian Hemingway filled her wheeled wire cart with fish sticks, milk, lettuce, margarine and a few loaves.

"I'm like old school," Hemingway said outside the Focus Interfaith Food Pantry. "I can take just a little. If I have an onion, a potato, I can make some soup."

People are relying on places like the food pantry a lot more this fall — and organizations that provide those emergency services worry about even busier times this winter.

They fear the safety net provided by private charities is already stretched taut in these tough times and could snap in the coming months. Advocates invoke the old "perfect storm" analogy: the economy is tanking as food and fuel prices stay high and government funding gets spottier.

Economic woes have already translated into a spike in demand at the Albany food pantry and other service providers around New York. In Buffalo, the number of families receiving bags of groceries through the Salvation Army's emergency family assistance last month was up 27 percent from the year before. Meals on Wheels in Albany is delivering to more elderly people. Catholic Family Center in Rochester saw demand for emergency services like food and clothing grow by 50 percent.

It's the same story all over: low-income individuals and families can't handle the double whammy of higher food and fuel. They need extra help.

"I've seen new families coming into our pantry that have been put over the edge," said Rev. Debra Jameson, who runs the Albany food pantry. "They just can't make it."

Food or heat?
The pinch is expected to get tighter for struggling families this winter when heating bills are added to the mix. Federal energy officials warned this month that heating bills will go up "across the board" with heating oil customers having to pay about $450 more than a year ago.

Mark Dunlea of the Hunger Action Network said people forced to choose between paying for food or heat will usually try to avoid freezing in their own home. This can put more stress on emergency services that offer food.

Looking to stave off disaster, Congress this fall doubled to $5.1 billion the federal money available to help poor people cope with home heating costs. In a complementary move, Gov. David Paterson's administration has boosted state heating aid funding, making up to $800 in aid available to qualified heating oil customers, up from $540 last year.

But governments face their own money problems with the Wall Street meltdown. New York cut $1 billion in spending this summer, including some social programs. For instance, a program that funds food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters was cut $1.6 million this summer, though the Paterson administration this month added back $1 million.

Another round of state cuts is planned after the Nov. 4 elections.

Counting pennies
The picture is just as gloomy when it comes to private donations, which are expected to stay flat or shrink as the middle class faces its own economic struggles. Jane Schramm, who runs Senior Services of Albany, said they are "counting pennies" like never before.

"We're realistic that people lost a lot of money in the stock market," said Janice Robinson, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Buffalo.

There are a few potential bright spots. Robinson hopes holiday spirit will help fill the Salvation Army's signature red buckets later this year. Oil prices have gone down amid the worldwide financial panic and it's possible less heating fuel will be needed this winter. Federal forecasters see a "slightly enhanced probability" of above-average temperatures for most of the East Coast.

"The one saving grace is that with global warming, winters are becoming milder," Dunlea said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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