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Going Hungry in America

What Happened to the Food Surplus?

The third in a five-part special report

Four years ago, volunteers at the Community Food Bank in, filled grocery  bags for the city’s neediest residents with such healthy and appetizing foods as rice, peanut butter, chicken, apricots, bread, nuts, spinach, milk, carrots and butter.

Then, item by item, month by month, the food bank’s shelves began to empty. Not long ago, people who stood in line for food received just three canned items: pineapple juice, green beans and stewed tomatoes.

The story is similar around the country, where the cupboards of food pantries and other food assistance programs have grown bare as the lifeline of surplus commodities provided by the federal government has slowed to a trickle.

The numbers are startling. In 2003, the federal government passed along $242 million in donated surplus commodities to food banks and other programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Emergency Food Assistance Program. By 2007, the figure had dropped to just $59 million.

The steep decline has been particularly startling because the system that supplies much-needed food has traditionally benefited both farmers and emergency food programs. When supplies of a commodity exceed demand and prices are low, the government buys up the surplus and gives it to food banks, food pantries and other assistance programs. In this way the USDA brings supply and demand more in line and helps shore up prices for key commodities such as milk, butter and wheat. The system also allows farmers to sell their surplus production. In the 1980s, the USDA bought up so many commodities that it had to scramble to find places to stockpile them.

But when demand exceeds supply, the surpluses dry up. Indeed, in recent years the nation’s farmers have been able to sell much of what they produce at record prices, and the USDA’s buying power has diminished. But for food assistance programs, the soaring demand has meant a steeply diminishing supply of staples in food banks and food pantries.

“Food banks everywhere have been hit hard by the decline in surplus commodities, just at a time when more and more people have been showing up at emergency food assistance centers because they can no longer make ends meet,” says Maura Daly, a vice president of Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Hardest hit are programs that serve older Americans and people living in impoverished communities and rural areas, which have long depended disproportionately on commodities from the USDA.

Gladys Pearson, 76, knows the consequences firsthand. After raising a family of seven, Pearson took a job as a corrections officer before retiring at 68.

“Right now I’m getting by—but just barely,” she says with an unmistakable note of defiant pride in her voice after she visited Bread for the City, a food bank in the nation’s capital.

Pearson, who lives alone on a fixed income, depends on the prepared meals delivered by Meals on Wheels five days a week, and she’s grateful for them, even though the organization has had to cut back on soups and salads. “More and more I’m managing to make one meal stretch into two,” she says.

She also counts on food items she picks up at the food bank, but Bread for the City, too, has had to scrimp. In July “they didn’t have any meat,” Pearson says. “They had to cut out juice, and instead of two cans of vegetables there’s only one this time. Believe me, all those little cuts add up.”

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