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Food Programs Feel the Squeeze

The second in a five-part special report

The first warning sign came in October 2007, when 1,000 more people than usual showed up to get food boxes handed out by the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, in Southern California. When the number climbed the following month by another thousand, the antipoverty group’s staff braced for the worst.

“By January we were serving 23,000 clients, well above our quota,” recalls Mark Lowry, director of the group. “In February, we had 23,396. In March, we had to stop taking on new clients.”

In the months that followed, the organization received dozens of calls each day from people in need who had to be turned away empty-handed. One of them is Geraldine Smith, 68, who lives in Santa Ana, where she is recovering from hip surgery.

“I was shocked,” she says. “It’s hard enough to ask for that kind of help. But it’s a whole lot worse to be turned away. People have got to eat. You got to have food, even if you have nothing else.”

Caught between soaring demand for their services and steeply rising food and energy costs, organizations that provide emergency food assistance are struggling to keep people from going hungry. “These are people who are worried about how they’re going to make it to the end of the month with food in the refrigerator,” Lowry says. “It’s terrible for us to have to tell them no.”

Yet around the country, in big cities and small towns, food banks that once opened their doors to everyone in need are saying no to more and more hungry Americans. So are many programs that serve hot meals to older people, homebound people, people with disabilities and others who can’t afford food.

Almost 40 percent of the home-delivered meal programs run by Meals on Wheels, for example, have waiting lists. Catholic Charities USA in Springfield, Mass., which funds a wide range of programs, including many that provide hot meals, has seen a 50 percent increase in demand at a time when operating costs have also climbed 30 percent. Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., served an average of 140 meals a day last year; by April of this year, it was up to 240, forcing the program to eliminate milk from its meals.

“It’s all hitting at once,” says Shelley Borysiewicz, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities USA. “And it’s hitting us hard.”

More need, less help

Food banks, soup kitchens, senior centers and Meals on Wheels agencies are under siege in part because the federal food stamp program, which is widely viewed as the nation’s chief anti-hunger safety net, hasn’t kept up with rising prices.

“Today, in a period of rapid inflation, people run out of food stamps even sooner, and many people turn to emergency food programs in their community such as food pantries supplied by our food banks,” George Braley, a senior vice president at Feeding America, a national network of food banks, told a congressional committee earlier this year. “Unfortunately, when they turn to those resources today, they are finding less help than usual and much less help than they need.”

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.

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.