Jules Cesar, who volunteers every week at the Haiitian-American Food Pantry in Jefferson Park, hands out turkeys to residents and others Nov. 22, 2005. The pantry plans to distribute some 300 turkeys this Thanksgiving. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

Jules Cesar, who volunteers every week at the Haiitian-American Food Pantry in Jefferson Park, hands out turkeys to residents and others Nov. 22, 2005. The pantry plans to distribute some 300 turkeys this Thanksgiving. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

Charities are in a holiday whirlwind, accepting food donations by the truckload, sending them out again by the car-full, delivering gift baskets and holding dinners for those without families or homes.

Some of the activity is on the decrease from previous years, and it’s not entirely clear why. Because the need for such services, according to Project Bread and local agencies, is clearly increasing.

Over the past four years 18,000 more households, or about 45,000 more people, reported food insecurity, a term meaning basically that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to Project Bread figures. That puts the year’s total of people struggling to put food on their table at about 450,000, at least partially a product of higher gas and heating expenses.

The difference can be better appreciated on a short-term, local level: Cambridge’s Food for Free expects to distribute 750,000 tons of food this year, a stark rise over last year’s 640,000.

“Most of our food sources have held about steady this year, which is problematic because it feels like the need is increasing,” said Michelle Holcombe, of Food for Free, which focuses on produce rather than the boxed or canned staples of many food drives. “The increase from ’03 to ’04 was a bigger jump than ’04 to ’05, but we’re not at the end of the year yet.”

There are new groups coming to Food for Free for food assistance, Holcombe said, in addition to those that have been around during the program’s 24 years.

David Leslie, of Food for Free, with stuffing still to be distributed for Thanksgiving in 2005. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

David Leslie, of Food for Free, with stuffing still to be distributed for Thanksgiving in 2005. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

That makes for about 50 groups taking Food for Free donations in Cambridge, Somerville and even Boston for distribution to the needy, said Holcombe’s co-worker, David Leslie. The group serves primarily Cambridge.

The Salvation Army office in Central Square also serves Cambridge and Somerville, but 70 percent of its Thanksgiving basket deliveries are to Cambridge, said Dan O’Neill, the group’s local director of community relations. He’s not certain why.

The baskets include all the makings for a traditional Thanksgiving feast, from turkey to condiments, and were being delivered yesterday by a volunteer corps of drivers from various city businesses and groups, including the Cambridge Rotary, Bob Slate’s Stationers, East Cambridge Savings Bank — bank president Arthur C. Spears delivered — and Zipcar, which donated car time as well as seven drivers.

The task was eased this year by a slight drop in demand. Last year about 230 baskets were delivered; this year has seen 190 go out the door, and O’Neill estimates at total of about 210. Baskets will go out at the last minute, he said, for “people who discover a paycheck that was supposed to come home isn’t going to.”

He cautiously credits an improving economy with the drop in demand for the baskets, but “We don’t really know.”

For the Cambridge Drop-in Center, a satellite program of Cambridge Health Alliance, a decrease in the number of people served Thanksgiving dinner yesterday wasn’t good news. The number was down to about 30, said the center’s Janet Lividoti, serving at a Porter Square church, because there is less money coming in for the program.

Partial food aid was flowing, though, at the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Center.

“The Tuesday before Thanksgiving we give away 400 turkeys. We usually see 400 people in a week,” said Janet Doucette, working the front desk at the center.

Shava Nerad contributed to this article.

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