By SUNNY LOCKWOOD
For all its natural beauty and rural charm, Calaveras County is also home to a growing number of poor and hungry.
Billie Westernoff, director of the Human Resources Council's Calaveras Food Bank, said the numbers are increasing dramatically.
She sees first-hand the growing parade of people asking for food.
"In 2001, we gave out 199,886 meals," she said. "In 2002, we experienced a 42 percent increase in (the number of) people seeking food.
"This year, as of Feb. 19, we've distributed 15,282 meals. These went to 1,687 families and 606 individuals," she said.
Westernoff said more people are moving to Calaveras to live with relatives after losing jobs in the Bay Area or other metropolitan areas. Most of the people she sees coming to the food bank would be classified as "working poor."
"They have jobs they're working they just aren't making a living wage," she said. "Rents have gone up. Gasoline has gone up."
Westernoff said according to the last federal census, 13 percent of Calaveras residents live below the poverty level, and 20.8 percent of children in the county under the age of 17 live below poverty level. As of 2001, Calaveras County had a population of 42,000 and a household count of 2,000.
To make matters worse, Westernoff said, the food bank program has lost $33,000 of its $106,000 annual budget because of the state's deficit.
"So we're scrambling to feed people," she said.
To help raise funds, the food bank will hold a benefit concert and raffle March 8 at Black Bart Playhouse, and a Walk Against Hunger on May 10.
"This concert, with its raffle, and the March in May are the only fund-raisers we'll have this year," she said, "other than Santa's Express during the holidays."
She said the band HomeGrown is donating its performance and the Black Bart Playhouse is charging HRC nothing for the use of its building.
"I hope everyone comes out for the evening of great music," She said. "Now more than ever, we need help."