Food banks squeezed by prices and demand

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Tue, 2008-05-27 18:59.

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STOCKTON, Calif. — Jackie Hoffman sifted through a laundry bin filled with aging loaves of bread. Like nearly a third of the first 50 customers to arrive at the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton that morning, Hoffman was new to the pantry. But since she lost her sales job at a local newspaper in December, she has not found work. "I'm down on my luck," Hoffman said, squeezing and sniffing the bread. "And food is going through the roof. I need help."

Hoffman, 55, is one of the growing number of "nontraditional" food-pantry clients across the country. They include formerly independent senior citizens, homeowners and people who used to call themselves "middle-class" — those who are not used to fretting over the price of milk.

In Washington state, "We're hearing dozens of these stories every week," said Shelley Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, which distributes food to 300 hunger programs statewide and operates a food bank in downtown Seattle.

"A lot of working folks are coming to us, people who were making it, but they've been pushed over the edge because of the cost of food and the cost of fuel," Rotondo said.

Rotondo said food banks are "getting squeezed on both ends," weathering sharp increases in food and fuel costs at the same time the need is increasing. The number of clients at the Seattle food bank has risen 10 percent in the past three months, while the agency has had to pay "fuel surcharges" adding up to 50 percent to the fuel cost of some shipments.

"What scares me the most is the uncertainty about where this is going to stop," Rotondo said.

April saw the biggest jump in food prices in 18 years, according to the Labor Department. At the same time, workers' average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, dropped for the seventh straight month.

To meet growing demand, America's Second Harvest — The Nation's Food Bank Network, pressed lawmakers for the past year to increase the annual level of funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program, (TEFAP), from $140 million to $250 million annually.

A survey it conducted of 180 food banks in late April and early May found that 99 percent have seen an increase in the number of clients served within the past year. The increase is estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent, though many food banks reported increases as high as 40 percent.

The money was included in the Farm Bill recently approved by Congress but won't be available until the next fiscal year, which starts in October.

"The way it's going, we're going to have a food disaster pretty soon," said Phyllis Legg, interim executive director of the Merced Food Bank, which serves 43 food pantries throughout foreclosure-ravaged Merced County in California.

Food banks across the country are in similar straits. Some have had to cut back on how much food they give, or how often.

"If gas keeps going up, it's going to be catastrophic in every possible way," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest.

Stories of want and need are mounting. In informal surveys, America's Second Harvest has found a growing number of food banks in crisis mode.

• In Albuquerque, N.M., the Roadrunner Food Bank reported that the pantries it serves are turning people away.

• In Baton Rouge, La., the public school system has found students hoarding their free and reduced-price lunches so they can bring them home and have something to eat at night.

• In Merced, the food bank is planning to curtail a brown-bag program, which supplies groceries to senior citizens, from once a week to once every two weeks, Legg said.

Even in San Francisco, a city that has been relatively unscathed by the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, food pantries are seeing hundreds of new clients.

"We've gone from serving about 450 to 600 clients a day since Christmas," said Sara Miles, director of The Food Pantry.

"This is one of the worst times that our food banks have experienced in recent years in terms of the level of need and our ability to meet the need," said Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive officer of America's Second Harvest.

The Emergency Food Bank of Stockton, which operates out of a warehouse at the fringe of town, now finds customers lining up several hours before it opens at 10 a.m.

That's because, clients say, the best food — the fresh meat and eggs — goes first.

"If I get here too late, I'll be left with Marshmallow Fluff for 14 days," said Sondra Pearson, a mother of seven. "Not," she added, "that I'm going to turn that down." 

[Via - SeattlePI.Com]

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