Faces of the food pantry: Finding hope in hard times

As millions of Americans visit food pantries in a tough economic climate, some find reasons to stay positive.

The number of Americans struggling to put food on the table has skyrocketed since the Great Recession. Today, at least one in eight depends on food pantries, soup kitchens and other emergency assistance to meet their nutritional needs, according to Ross Fraser, spokesperson of Feeding America, a non-profit hunger relief organization.

In July, we asked clients of two Philadelphia-area food pantries -- one in an economically depressed section of the city, the other in an affluent suburb -- to explain what brought them there and how they stay positive during tough economic times.

Christopher Ravenel, 44, suffers from kidney disease and must receive four-hour dialysis treatments three times a week, leaving him unable to work. Philabundance Community Food Center, a food pantry that serves an underprivileged community in north Philadelphia and distributes approximately 21,000 pounds of groceries every week, has helped him support the foster son he started caring for eight months ago.

Ravenel says being a caretaker has greatly enriched his life. "I was depressed, and then I met my foster son, and it opened my eyes that I can make somebody's life better," he said. "It’s what keeps me busy and makes me proud." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
Despite being discharged from the Marine Corps and losing his job as a sportswear salesman two months ago, Joshua Colon, 24, still strives to provide for his family. Since July, that has meant coming to the Philabundance Community Food Center for assistance. "Being a man, that makes me proud. A man takes care of his wife and kids."

Colon is expecting his third child in September--his first girl. "She's my princess, I gotta spoil her. I never want to see a frown on her face," said Colon, pictured here with his partner Rebecca. "I'm going to give her the world--everything I never had." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
Rhonda Johnson used to pass the Philabundance Community Food Center every day while walking to her mother's house and wondered why people were gathered outside. She never thought she would end up standing in that line herself.

"I came up selling drugs just to make sure [my family] had everything," she said. "The money was good and quick, but the punishment was ugly. The money is gone now."

Johnson lives with her daughter, who supports the family on her nurse's salary. Johnson looks for ways to contribute, such as applying for government assistance, picking up food at the pantry every week, and working toward her GED. "I don't want [my family] to think I'm just sitting around. You know, that I ain't doing nothing." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
Jose Acevedo, 30, a barber, left his native Puerto Rico for Philadelphia in 2010 to pursue the American dream--a chance for economic mobility. But so far, Acevedo has struggled to adjust and has failed to find a job.

As he continues to look for a position at a barbershop, Acevedo says he sometimes cuts hair for free. "Then that person’s self-esteem goes up, 'oh, I have a nice haircut, now I can go out,'" he said through a translator during a visit to the Philabundance Community Food Center. "I feel good making people feel better about themselves." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
Health problems prevent Lillian Santiago, 54, from holding a job. "I'm schizophrenic bipolar," she said, "and I have leukemia." Santiago lives on disability benefits and food stamps--and for added assistance, she's been coming to the Philabundance Community Food Center ever since it opened in 2009. For her, the pantry is more than a place to get food.

"This is like the therapist for me. I come out with my friends, and we laugh and have a nice time," she said. "We talk about things that happen, our problems." The group has become like her family, spending every Mother's Day and Christmas together. They’re also the self-appointed keepers of the food line, Santiago added. "I help make sure there is no fighting. That makes me feel good. Everybody knows me and will call me if they have a problem." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
For years, Woody Hoffman worked as a furniture salesman and then as a school bus driver. Nearly two decades after retiring, Hoffman, 85, and his wife struggle to make ends meet on his Social Security benefits and pension. "Every year our savings is going down, down, down,” he says. “In five years, I'll be selling pretzels on the corner to come up with a few extra dollars."

To stretch his budget, Hoffman turns to Seeds of Hope, a food pantry located in the relatively prosperous Philadelphia suburb of Dresher, which gives away more than 7,000 pounds of groceries per week.

In his free time, Hoffman volunteers at a local radio station, making public announcements and sharing his knowledge of classical and big band music. "I hope [listeners] get a little bit of the feeling I have--the love of something done to its very best," he said. Scott Lewis / for NBC News
On the third week of every month, retiree Andrew Wyatt watches out his window for the postman to deliver his pension check. He relies on it, plus Social Security, to cover his expenses.

New to the Philadelphia suburb of Dresher, Wyatt has found himself with a high mortgage and lots of bills to pay. And recently, Wyatt took in a mother and her three children who lost their home when it burned down in a fire this summer--four extra mouths to feed. Wyatt comes to Seeds of Hope every Tuesday, and has for the past two years, to get groceries to make meals for his family, neighbors, and friends. "Cooking brings you happiness when you know that everyone enjoys what you’re cooking." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
Judy Hackler, a retired medical receptionist, started coming to Seeds of Hope in February after her husband underwent surgery for kidney cancer. With no savings, the couple has teetered on the financial brink due to the high cost of medication and other bills.

Hackler says she isn't used to relying on others but that she gets inspired by people she meets at Seeds of Hope, especially those who only take what they need. "People here are all in the same boat as me, but they don't take everything, they leave some for others. It's uplifting to see," she said. "Being here gives me hope that I can get through the week." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
After beating breast cancer five years ago, Dian Friend hoped her troubles were over. Then eight months ago, she lost her job as a recreation director at a senior center. After that unexpected financial setback, she started coming to Seeds of Hope in July to help feed her husband and 13-year-old daughter.

"The money I've gotten from unemployment is not enough for the three of us. But that's not the most important thing in my life," she said. "The most important thing is God. Without God you don't have anything."

Friend's faith brings her closer to her daughter Emily, which gives her the strength to keep looking for work, she said. "She's my little rock. She's always been there for me." Scott Lewis / for NBC News
After retiree James Snead and his wife took in their two young grandsons eight years ago, the couple found their modest retirement nest egg running low.

"Our savings was set aside for two and now we got two more," said Snead, who regularly comes to Seeds of Hope food pantry. "Every year [our grandsons] grow out of clothes, and the cost to feed them is very expensive."

Despite the couple’s financial challenges, caring for their grandsons has brought them a sense of purpose and fulfillment in retirement. "They keep us active," said Snead, pictured here with grandson LeBron. "And they’ve also taught us good behavior by telling us to wear our seat belts."

Read more stories and tell us where you are seeing poverty “in plain sight.” Send your photos and/or thoughts using the hashtag #inplainsight on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook & Google+. Scott Lewis / for NBC News