The numbers are grim.

Since 2009, demand is up 25 percent and donations are down 80 percent. As a result, reserves at the Project FEED food pantry in Portland are down 27 percent.

It’s enough to keep volunteer pantry manager Delene Perley up at night. How can she possibly feed so many needy people as donations plummet?

One answer comes in the form of a song. Not just any song, but one of the most revered and singable pieces in the classical repertory.

For the better part of a decade, the Choral Art Society has presented its Messiah Sing-Along as a benefit for Project FEED (Food Emergency Exchange Depot), which operates from the basement at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St.

This year’s concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at St. Patrick’s Church, 1342 Congress St., Portland. In addition to paying a $5 donation for admission, attendees are asked to bring non-perishable food donations. After covering expenses related to staging the concert, the Choral Art Society donates the money to Project FEED.

“It seemed like an ideal match, so we said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Robert Russell, who directs the choral group.

The Messiah Sing-Along is the second major concert for the Choral Art Society this holiday season. The first, “Christmas at the Cathedral,” is on tap this weekend at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

“Christmas at the Cathedral” is a tremendous concert, and one of the most anticipated holiday events in town. But the Messiah Sing-Along is different because it’s so familiar and well-loved. George Handel wrote the oratorio in 1741.

“He wrote it in a tempest,” Russell said. “He composed it in a month. It was premiered in Dublin, it was a hit on its premiere, and it’s been a hit with English-speaking audiences ever since.”

The reason for the sustained popularity of the Messiah is its sing-ability. It’s not a hard piece to sing, necessarily. And because it’s sung in English, it’s easy to understand the words and emotions. Thus, it remains popular with both amateur and professional choirs.

“It’s like going back and seeing an old friend around the holidays,” Russell said.

Although it has been long associated with the holidays, Handel did not compose his work with Christmas in mind. He wrote it for Lent and with Easter in mind. The work alludes to the birth of Christ, his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the promise of a judgment day. It is about good conquering evil.

The Choral Art Society began its sing-along very casually, with just piano accompaniment. Russell invites anyone forward who wants to sing the solo parts, and they’re usually sung by groups of singers. In recent years, the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra has accompanied the singers.

Project FEED got involved with the Messiah about eight years ago. The choral group was rehearsing in a local church, and one of the members saw a brochure for Project FEED.

In the beginning, the choir simply asked attendees to bring food. A few years later, they asked for cash. Now the concert stands as an important benefit for Project FEED, Perley said.

“We are grateful for the interest and assistance provided by such socially aware groups in our community,” she said. “Everything is valuable to us, because donations mean we have to spend less from our financial reserve. The total in that fund has been going down significantly this past year due to increase demand and less in donations.”

Project FEED was founded in 1975 by local clergy concerned about the number of residents without a reliable source of food in emergencies.

In many ways, the need is more dire today than it was then. The poor economy has taken its toll, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that the simplest of gestures — the donation of a canned good — can have such an immediate impact.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes