Gilbert residents are driving up to a local church's food pantry in luxury cars - just one sign that the downturn in the national economy is creating a new class of needy.
Ron Earle, New Life Family Church's senior pastor, says that in recent months the church has been getting requests for assistance from residents arriving in brand-new cars, even BMWs and Lexuses.
Ginny Hildebrand, executive director for the Arizona Association of Food Banks, said it's a trend being seen nationwide.
Hildebrand said it's not the first time in history a downturn in the economy is causing those who may normally be the ones to donate food to be needing the aid instead.
In 2001, for instance, people who'd lost their jobs in the financial industry were suddenly facing economy difficulties, and seeking help, she said.
Earle, whose church is on Gilbert Road between Elliot and Warner roads, said it's a sign that many residents who normally can afford to buy the best of the best are "in over their heads" as the housing market plummets, gas prices soar and many companies are laying off.
"We all want material things in our life," Earle said, adding "We're all called to give and take care of each other."
His church, where his wife and two sons also are pastors, is looking to play a part in helping the growing crowd of needy, and in educating residents to spend below their means, and give back to the community when they can.
The nondenominational church operates inside what was once a Methodist church built in 1948. Posted on the walls are plans to purchase two adjacent lots and more than double the size of the current facility, which can now seat 250. The church wants to build a second auditorium with 750 seats for services.
Church leaders also plan to expand the food pantry, now just a stock room. They pay the United Food Bank a reduced rate to stock the pantry with canned and boxed food and infant supplies handed out to 10 to 20 residents a week at a rate of about 3,000 pounds each month.
No one seeking supplies is asked to join the church, Earle said. He said he doesn't have a lot of requirements for providing the food, but keeps an eye out for anyone trying to abuse the system. His idea is to give back and help everyone, even those whom he said are embarrassed to be facing hard times.
"It's an epidemic in Gilbert of people overspending and getting in over their heads," said Mark Earle, pastor at the church and Ron Earle's son. "But we've all been there. We want to be that help, and lift them in their time of need."
He said only about 10 percent of the people who come to the church for food are "truly poor."
On Monday, two women with two small children drove up for a bag of groceries in a new Toyota fitted with speakers in the trunk.
Ron and Paul Earle, another son and pastor, gave them a bag and promised that there were "no strings attached."
The church is near neighborhoods with million-dollar homes, but it's also close to lower-income areas surrounding downtown Gilbert.
Paul Earle said help is needed on both fronts.
"It's the commandment of Jesus to feed and give food to the hungry, no matter what background or demographics," he said.
The recent upswing in need became obvious last June, Hildebrand said. It became pronounced in November and December, and has been steadily increasing.
"It's pretty widespread throughout the nation, actually," Hildebrand said. "The demand for assistance is up all over the country. There's a combination of things that are happening, between more people needing assistance and there being a little less food in the system."
She said it's not always easy or quick to get out of the commitments of an expensive home or luxury car, and residents needing emergency food should not be ashamed to get it as they make longer term plans for the future.
"I can imagine that this is not a simple thing for a family to work out overnight," she said. "Oftentimes, people in the situation ... have never asked for assistance. So they attached some shame or guilt to it. But this is why various programs exist in our country, to make sure there are not hungry or starving people.
"They should know that their neighbors and the people that are about their neighbors in this country have made this possible, and they want them to come and get assistance."