SEBRING - "You know what, they say the recession has ended," but Carol Bogdan can't prove it by the number of requests that the Heartland Food Reservoir has been getting.
The food bank on South U.S. 27 opened its doors in 2010. It sends a truck to Publix, Sweetbay, Winn-Dixie and Walmart, making weekly rounds for castoff produce, baked goods, canned goods and meat.
As fast as volunteers sort and shelve food, church pantries come by and empty those shelves, then distribute to the poor in their own neighborhoods.
"The requests have gone up tremendously," said Bogdan, who is on the board of directors. "Churches, they say that more and more people are needing food. In the last year, we've put out 400,000 pounds of food."
The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that in 2011, 22 percent of households experienced one or more possible hardships in fulfilling their basic needs in the previous 12 months.
Those hardships included meeting essential expenses, not having enough food, unpaid rent or mortgage, eviction, utilities or phone service cut off, or not seeing a doctor or dentist when needed.
The number of utility cutoffs dropped from 155 in August 2008 to 122 in August 20, but Assistant Utilities Director Bob Boggus said that may be the result of the City of Sebring trying harder to reach customers.
"We give them a courtesy call on Thursday, the week before," Boggus said. Meters are actually disconnected on Tuesdays. "We are able to reduce the actual number of disconnects."
The census report covers the period from 2005, before the recent recession, to 2011, or about two years after the recession officially ended. Several measures worsened. The number of households with unmet expenses increased from 16.4 million to 20 million (from 14 percent to 16 percent of all households), and the number of households experiencing food shortages rose from 2.7 million to 3.4 million (2 percent to 3 percent).
Households with unpaid rent or mortgage payments increased 2.7 million to 9.6 million (6 percent to 8 percent). Eighty-six percent of households expected to obtain help from friends, family or community agencies if they were to have trouble fulfilling any of their basic needs. However, when such needs did arise, few actually received such help.
For instance, when a householder had trouble making rent or mortgage payments, only 5 percent received assistance from friends, 17 percent from family members and 10 percent from other sources.
The number of local families on food stamps has risen from 16 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012, and remains steady.
In 2007, before the Great Recession, only one in 13 Highlands County men, women and children needed food stamps to set the table. However, the Department of Children and Families statistics showed the number rose from 16,938 in December 2007 to 20,088 in August 2013 - 20.3 percent.
The average food stamp benefit is $126 per client, or $262 per household. The average allotment to the elderly is $130.
Additionally, 15,240 Highlands residents received Medicaid benefits in January 2011.
The number of households with children under 18 who had at least one unemployed parent rose by 33 percent between 2005 and 2011, another census report said.
There are signs the recession is turning around, however.
Heartland Workforce is having a job fair on Thursday, and this time, it's at the request of 20 employers.
"They are having trouble filling positions," said Alan Grimes, planning and operations analyst. "This one is in response to employer requests. We had a job fair last spring, and we had to beg (employers) to come. This time around, they want to work with us."
Aaron's Sales & Lease, Alan Jay Automotive, AMS Central, Belk, Marshall's, Mattress Firm and Primerica are looking for sales associates. Avon Park and DeSoto Corrections are looking for corrections officers, Palms of Sebring wants to hire a finance director, Florida Highway Patrol needs patrol officers, Azure College needs an admissions advisor, Checkers needs cashiers, Olympic Restaurant needs servers, D & N Cabinetry needs a cabinet installer, Lykes needs an equipment operator. Other employers include Edward Jones, Florida Beef, Florida Hospital Heartland, Florida Joint & Spine Institut, Highlands County Sheriff's Office, Home Depot, Lowe's, National Guard Reserve, Samaritan's Touch Care Center, Sunshine Staffing and Wells Fargo Bank.
The fair is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Bert Harris Agricultural Center in Sebring. Veterans can get in one hour early.
"This is the first good sign we're seeing," Grimes said.
In 2005, before the recession started, the Highlands County unemployment rate was in the 4 percent range. By January 2011, 11.7 percent were jobless. The current rate is 9 percent.