Times are tough for agencies helping those dealing with tough times.

Food banks in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, with less money, less food and more needy families, are depending more than ever on local volunteers and contributions this season.

Commodity donations from government and large corporations, which have traditionally accounted for the lion's share of inventory at Sonora and San Andreas food banks, are way down. And with transportation costs and demand up, the holiday outlook for the foothills' less fortunate is as dim as it's been in years.

"With the housing crisis and a down economy, some of our donors have become clients," said Billie Westernoff, 15-year director of the San Andreas-based Human Resources Council Food Bank. "The demand for holiday baskets is so high that we're sending people home with less food."

Straits aren't as dire at the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency's Jamestown Food Bank, where Director Lee Kimball is determined to send out full Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets to thousands of needy Tuolumne County residents.

Still, both food banks have one thing in common: Without the local help, they will not get the job done.

For those of us who will have food on the table and presents under the tree for the holidays, now is the time to help those who may not. If past performance is any indication, we will come through.

"Our community will step up to the plate like it always does," predicted Westernoff. "In Calaveras County, people care about their neighbors. The response never ceases to amaze me."

Kimball agreed, saying Tuolumne County donations have typically been "phenomenal" and "above and beyond anything else." She added that spirited giving this year "can make a huge difference."

True, the food banks always need help at the holidays and to some their pleas may ring hollow. Why is this year any different, skeptics may ask.

Kimball said perfect storm of food shortages, high gas prices and tough economic times have made things harder on the ATCAA Food Bank than they have in her more than 10 years at the helm. She has dramatic numbers to prove it:

? Corporate and government food donations, which together account for about 90 percent of the bank's inventory, have dropped 40 percent over the past three years.

Federal food donations have been stagnant for about five years and redistributed farm commodities have dropped, as the bill that authorizes them does not provide for increases in assistance to account for inflation.

? Over the past three years food costs at the ATCAA bank have risen by 72 percent and transportation bills by 62 percent.

? Although community food donations have risen by more than 80 percent since 2004, the bank's total stocks are still down by 30 percent.

? Households served by the ATCAA, thanks largely to its new and very successful Food for Kids Program, have risen 88 percent in the past three years.

? Volunteer response at the Jamestown food bank is almost beyond belief. Kimball claims 864 regular volunteers and can muster up to 1,000 during busy times. But with the holidays here, she still needs more help, particularly drivers.

Worsening the situation, said Westernoff, are tough economic conditions here in the Mother Lode. More people need help and food barrels around Calaveras County aren't filling as fast as they have in the past. Nevertheless both the SRC-sponsored Santa's Express and the ATCAA Food Bank have already distributed hundreds of Thanksgiving baskets and are gearing up for Christmas.

But the hunger and the need will continue far beyond the holidays, which is why this community's generosity is so crucial.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.