Union Democrat staff

With Thanksgiving a day away, the 2009 holiday season is under way.

For many of us, this means turkey dinners, parties, refrigerators and pantries loaded with provisions and that nagging worry that you might put on a few pounds between now and the new year.

Through all this excitement and anticipation, we just might forget those with an entirely different problem - one that started well before the holidays and may persist into the dark winter months that follow: Not having enough to eat.

With the economy struggling and unemployment both in the Mother Lode and statewide in double digits, food banks, churches and other charitable organizations are facing unprecedented demand as 2009 winds to a close.

The Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency Food Bank, which last year delivered 1,200 Thanksgiving baskets, this year passed out nearly 2,500.

"The need is insane," said Lee Kimball, the food bank's director. "It came right down to the wire this Thanksgiving, but we got it done."

Calaveras County's Resource Connection Food Bank met its goal of putting together 650 Thanksgiving dinner boxes, but on Monday was still struggling to furnish holiday meals to those on a waiting list nearing 200.

"One way or another, we're going to get turkeys to everyone who needs them," vowed Program Director Jeannie Hayward.

None of this is easy.

The Calaveras food bank, for instance, was earlier this month about $13,000 short of the $35,000 it needs to put together and deliver holiday meals. ATCAA, which serves the needy in a five-county area, reports that demand has doubled in the past two years.

Despite news stories that the economy is turning around, there is little local evidence that happy times are around the corner. Unemployment in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties has vaulted above 13 percent.

"About all I can say is that our list of clients isn't growing quite as fast as it was a year ago," said Kimball.

Sonora Area Foundation last May raised $500,000 to help ATCAA and other organizations handle the growing demand through its SOS-Tuolumne County Families in Crisis program. But ATCAA's $210,000 share of that cash, said Kimball, goes to meeting day-to-day needs.

Which leaves the community to handle the holiday dinners.

The bad news is that it's too late to help with Thanksgiving. The good is that there's plenty of time to make Christmas merry for our community's less fortunate.

The opportunities:

TUOLUMNE COUNTY: Canned cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie filling and stuffing mix are three Christmas staples that can be dropped in barrels at grocery stores and banks or at the Food Bank, 10059 Victoria Way in Jamestown. Frozen turkeys and canned hams are also welcome at the food bank.

Donations (tax-deductible checks can be made out to ATCAA/Food Bank) can be sent ATCAA, 427 N. Highway 49, Suite 301, Sonora, CA 95370. One hundred percent of contributions are used to buy food.

Those willing to volunteer for the Christmas drive should call 984-3960, and do so early. The Food Bank will need help collecting food from barrels, sorting, assembling dinner baskets and delivering them.

CALAVERAS COUNTY: The Santa's Express program will shift into Christmas gear as soon as Thanksgiving weekend is over. Canned goods and other non-perishables can be dropped in red barrels at community grocery stores or brought, with frozen turkeys, to the Food Bank, at 206 George Reed Drive, about 1.5 miles from San Andreas off Pool Station Road.

Donations (tax-deductible checks can be made out to Santa's Express) can be sent to Santa's Express, P.O. Box 919, San Andreas, CA 95249.

Volunteers, both for food distribution and for passing out clothes and toys at the San Andreas Town Hall, are needed. Call 754-1257 to sign up.

In urging creation of a national Thanksgiving, magazine editor Sarah Hale in the 19th century envisioned the holiday being as much about helping the less fortunate as being grateful for our own blessings. "Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving."

Those are words to live by, especially in these times.