Groups step up efforts to serve needy

The leaders of financially squeezed charities and nonprofits say they have had to step up services, especially during the upcoming holiday season, because more Louisiana and East Baton Rouge Parish residents are living in poverty now than in years past.

Groups such as St. Vincent De Paul, the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging and Holiday Helpers of Baton Rouge all are holding annual Thanksgiving dinners this year for people who cannot afford their own holiday meals. The leaders of all three groups said they expect to serve more Thanksgiving meals this year than last.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data on poverty explains the increased need for those services.

More Louisiana residents were living in poverty in 2011 than the year before, growing from 18.7 percent of the state’s population in 2010 to 20.4 percent in 2011, according to the poverty census data released in September.

The same census data shows that 20 percent of the East Baton Rouge Parish population was living in poverty in 2011, compared to 17 percent in 2010.

The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging held its annual Thanksgiving Luncheon on Friday at the Belle of Baton Rouge Atrium, serving just over 700 meals Friday, which was more than double last year’s Thanksgiving meal count of 315, Council on Aging Executive Director Tasha Clark-Amar said.

“The economy has been a problem all year but everything magnifies over the holidays,” Clark-Amar said.

“It’s a constant struggle for our seniors and we are dealing with double the amount of seniors now over the amount we dealt with 10 years ago while our funding has stayed the same in that time,” Clark-Amar said.

The Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul will be holding its annual Thanksgiving Dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the group’s dining room, 220 St. Vincent de Paul Place.

Thursday’s meal will be the 30th of its kind, said Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul Chief Executive Officer Michael Acaldo.

For the 26th year in a row, Holiday Helpers of Baton Rouge is holding its annual Thanksgiving Together Dinner at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Baton Rouge River Center.

Both Thanksgiving meals are free and open to the public and reservations are not required.

In a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report issued earlier in the week, data showed that the average income of the richest 5 percent of households in Louisiana is 14.1 times larger than the income of the bottom 20 percent of households. The report ranked Louisiana sixth nationally in the greatest disparity between the top and bottom income households in the late 2000s.

Acaldo said the sluggish economy and recent recession has created an extra burden on the community’s poor and has increased the need for services his agency provides the last few years. He said that need continues to grow.

“Last year by December, we had served 223,624 meals. This year, we are on pace to surpass that with more than 240,000 meals served from our dining room,” Acaldo said.

St. Vincent de Paul serves a hot meal daily and prepares brown bag meals for dinner each day.

On Thanksgiving Day, St. Vincent de Paul will serve close to 500 meals, Acaldo said.

The B’Nai Israel School of Religion will deliver 85 turkeys to St. Vincent de Paul on Sunday, all of which will be cooked to serve on Thanksgiving Day, Acaldo said. The cooking for the big meal will start Monday and continue through Wednesday.

City Constable Reginald Brown, one of the main organizers of the Holiday Helpers of Baton Rouge Thanksgiving Together Dinner, also said the economy has been rough on the community, which has increased the need for free holiday meals.

“Years ago, it used to be known as a dinner for the hungry, poor and homeless but now its more known as a communitywide event where people can get together in a wholesome environment,” Brown said.

Brown said he tells people to save their money and come out and enjoy the meal.

“We are in trying times. I say save your own resources for that day because you will need them,” Brown said.

Brown’s group will be preparing 60 to 75 turkeys and could serve as many as 1,500 meals that day, he said.

Besides turkey, the Holiday Helpers meal will include ham, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans, rolls, dessert and soft drinks and coffee.