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Food pantries try to keep up

In the office of the two-story house that serves as the Fourth Ward food pantry, Lois Flaniken sits surrounded by cans, bags, and boxes and talks about the people she serves. ``We're seeing a lot of what they call the new poor,'' she says, ``people who had $500-to-$600-a-month apartments, a nice car, a good job, fancy clothes, and who don't have any of that now. It's people who've never gone through this hardship in their life.''

Mrs. Flaniken's pantry, sponsored by the black congregation of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church, is one of 121 such outlets in Houston that distribute three-day emergency food supplies. Eleven years ago the city's Metropolitan Ministries Hunger Coalition started out with only six pantries.

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But Ellen Mitchell, director of the Hunger Coalition, worries that with the suburbs concentrating more on ``their own,'' there will be less help for neighborhoods inhabited by the ``traditional poor'' - like the Fourth Ward.

``I sympathize with middle-class families who have lost jobs,'' she says, ``but often for them it means going from two incomes to one. It's more of a life style change [than genuine hardship].''

According to Ms. Mitchell, those suffering most are the traditional poor who often find a new group of better-educated, more mobile, and savvier people competing for the same jobs and resources.

A joke is making the rounds in Houston: What do you call a petroleum engineer in 1987 Houston? Hey, waiter!

In another part of town, hundreds of bag lunches are being distributed by the food pantry at the large and lawn-surrounded St. Paul's Methodist Church.

``We're finding ourselves serving more needs than just food,'' says Bobbie Kidd, who has been the pantry director for four years. ``We go into the homes and help with utilities, and we have to deal with the parolees and mental cases that are being put out on the streets.'' Mrs. Kidd works with a coalition of 11 congregations, which she says are giving more than ever before.

But Mitchell says new donations to the Hunger Coalition are slowing, and that ultimately the city's churches and charitable organizations won't be able to fill the need. ``At some point the state has to take a more helpful role,'' she says.

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