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Going Hungry in America

Food Programs Feel the Squeeze

The second in a five-part special report

Higher gas prices also slam volunteers, especially those who deliver food to the homebound. Volunteers racked up 4.8 billion miles offering assistance to the needy in 2006, according to the National Association for Home Care and Hospice. “We’re losing a lot of the volunteers we depend on to deliver food because of these high gas prices,” says Rosanna Smith, program manager for the Clayton County Aging Program in Georgia. “They want to do this with all their heart, but after a while they just can’t.”

Nationwide, 58 percent of all meal-delivery programs are having trouble getting volunteers, according to Meals on Wheels. That figure echoes the results of a recent survey by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which found that 70 percent of its member agencies are having trouble recruiting or retaining volunteers.

“Everyone’s suffering”

Meanwhile, the lines outside many soup kitchens and food pantries grow longer. “In my 16 years I’ve never seen anything like this outside of disaster response,” Krepcho says. “The increased urgency, the increased need—it’s scary.”

As the nation’s economic troubles deepen, the outlook for many food banks and meal programs is grim. More than two in five food banks have reduced or are considering reducing the amount or variety of food they offer, according to a recent survey by Feeding America. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging reports that half of the organizations it represents have already had to cut back on programs. Nine of 10 expect to cut back in the coming year. Some have shut their doors altogether.

“Everyone’s suffering,” says Eduardo Ramos, 67, who earns $8 an hour as a volunteer coordinator for emergency food aid in Orange County, Calif. To make ends meet, he shares an apartment with a roommate. He has all but given up going out to restaurants. Without the little extra money he earns, he says, he wouldn’t be able to make it. “And many of the people we serve,” he says, “are much worse off.”

Their plight isn’t likely to end anytime soon. In July, food prices showed their highest monthly increase of the year and, according to the Department of Agriculture, will increase 5 to 6 percent in 2008. Driven by growing international demand, the price of food is expected to remain high for at least the next decade.

Energy prices could also remain near record highs, affecting transportation costs across the board. Residential electricity prices, meanwhile, will climb a whopping 9.8 percent in 2009, according to the Energy Information Administration’s forecast, further straining already tight household budgets. Add the growing bite of out-of-pocket medical expenses that many of the nation’s working poor face, and there’s no doubt that food banks and meal programs will be seeing growing numbers of desperate Americans at their doors.

“The only question,” Lowry says, “is whether we’ll have anything to give them.”

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

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