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Going Hungry in America

Food Programs Feel the Squeeze

The second in a five-part special report

Most food banks and food pantries stock their shelves from four sources: food commodities provided by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, surplus and slightly damaged food donated by local restaurants and grocery stores, donated food collected through food drives, and supplies bought with funds from state and local programs and private donations. As the economy has faltered and food inflation has accelerated, however, many of those sources have been drying up.

One example is surplus food donated to the federal government and passed along to food banks and meal programs. In 2003 the value of such donations totaled $242 million. Since then, however, soaring international demand for food has sharply drawn down U.S. agricultural surpluses. As a result, the value of donations fell to only $58.5 million in 2007.

The falloffs have hurt food banks everywhere. But they’ve been particularly hard on those in rural and depressed areas, says Doug O’Brien, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank and a former staff member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. “Because rural local economies are often weak, they depend disproportionately on federal commodities,” he says.

Even in more affluent areas where supermarkets and restaurants donate excess food to food banks and meal programs, times are tough. Inventories are being tightened, leaving much less food left over to donate. Many restaurants, forced to raise prices on their menus, are struggling. And though private contributions through food drives and other programs have held up in some parts of the country, they’re faltering in others, where some food banks report that fundraising efforts are down 15 to 20 percent.

The double whammy

All of this comes at a time when food banks and meal program themselves are struggling to meet both higher food and higher energy costs—a combination that has made it doubly hard for them to provide the level of help needed. Food banks are all about moving food. Each time the cost of gasoline goes up, it takes away money that otherwise would have gone for food.

“Fuel costs are absolutely hammering our operating budgets,” says Dave Krepcho, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which works with more than 450 local programs. “And if a truck doesn’t roll, the food doesn’t flow.”

In June the Meals on Wheels Association of America reported a 30 percent reduction in the frequency of delivered meals among 277 of its programs. Some programs that once delivered hot meals daily now save gas by making weekly deliveries of one hot meal and four frozen meals.

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