Food banks cashing it in
Diana Blasingame lately has found herself having to go to a free food pantry once a month to feed herself and her teenage daughter.
“I’m pretty good at making things stretch as far as I can, but food is so high now, and I have to have gas in my car to do my job,” said Blasingame, 46, who earns $9 an hour as a home health aide in Cincinnati. “I work full time, but I don’t have health insurance, and sometimes there just isn’t enough to pay bills and buy food.”
Operators of free food banks say they are seeing more working people such as Blasingame needing assistance. The increased demand is outstripping supplies and forcing many pantries and food banks to cut portions.
Janesville’s pantries also are seeing a greater demand. In fact, Marge Sell, resource coordinator at ECHO, has found herself rechecking the numbers because she can’t believe the increased needs.
“We have food banks in virtually every city in the country, and what we are hearing is that they are all facing severe shortages with demand so high,” said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest—The Nation’s Food Bank Network, the nation’s largest hunger relief group. “One of our food banks in Florida said demand is up 35 percent over this time last year.”
Demand is being driven by rising costs of food, housing, utilities, health care and gasoline. Meanwhile, food manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers are finding they have less surplus food to donate, and government help has decreased, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I can’t believe how much worse it gets month after month,” she said.
“Part of the problem is the increased need,” said Janesville’s Sell.
The other part is the increase in food costs, she said.
The number of food orders filled by ECHO, a food pantry and social services organization supported by local churches, has increased from 150 a week this summer to easily 200, Sell said.
Families are allowed a food order once a month. Each order contains 21 meals.
“We’d like to give more cereal, more staples, but we’re just not able to,” she said.
“Janesville isn’t that big that we should be having those numbers.”
Most of ECHO’s clients have jobs, but they aren’t making ends meet, Sell said.
ECHO also sponsors a monthly mobile food pantry.
Karen Lisser, executive director, said increased food costs mean ECHO also will spend more money to buy food.
Capt. Kirk Schuetz of Janesville’s Salvation Army said the organization is counting on its ongoing food drive to carry staff into next year.
“Lots of people are coming in to get assistance from us,” he said. “It seems to be more than usual, more than in recent years.”
The food pantry supports the grocery orders from the emergency assistance office and the noon feeding program.
“We are living in a generous community,” he added. “People give when they know there’s a need.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual hunger survey released Wednesday showed that more than 35.5 million people in the United States were hungry in 2006. While that number was about the same as the previous year, heads of food banks and pantries say many more people are seeking their assistance.
Tony Hall, vice president of the Food Bank of Southwest Georgia, estimates a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in demand for food in the 20-county area the organization serves. He cites cutbacks by local companies, rising fuel costs and the lingering impact of a March tornado that tore through Americus, Ga., destroying or damaging hundreds of homes.
“We really didn’t rebound from that,” Hall said Friday. “We’re definitely down in donations. Each year the demand gets bigger and bigger.”
Supplies are down to a little over 8 million pounds of food from a peak of about 12 million pounds two years ago at Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action, which provides food bank services in 10 counties in southeast Ohio.
“We’ve lost factory jobs and many service jobs don’t pay a livable wage,” said Dick Stevens, director of the organization’s food and nutrition division. “We see a lot of desperation in families who are trying to figure out how to pay higher fuel and utility costs and still put food on the table.”
Most food banks and pantries aren’t optimistic about the coming winter.
“November weather has been relatively mild, and you haven’t seen the cost of home heating fuel added to what a family has to deal with,” said Evelyn Behm, associate director of the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, which supplies food to pantries, soup kitchens and other charities in 20 central and eastern Ohio counties. “Those prices, we all know, are going up substantially this year.”
At the Society of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Cincinnati, clients now get three or four days’ worth of food instead of six or seven.
“We are trying to stretch our resources to help more people,” said Liz Carter, executive director of the society. “But it’s so difficult when you see the desperation and have to tell them you just don’t have enough to give them what they need.”
Officials with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which serves nearly 1,000 agencies in 23 counties, also are worried.
Through the end of August, the food bank was down almost 700,000 pounds of USDA commodities that include basic essentials such as canned fruit and vegetables and some meat—food that is very difficulty to make up in donations, Executive Director Mark Quandt said.
“We’re bracing ourselves for a very tough winter, especially with home heating fuel prices at record highs in the Northeast,” Quandt said. “People living in poverty or near poverty just can’t sustain those types of increases.”
Janesville residents who want to donate food or cash can do so at the Salvation Army at 514 Sutherland Ave. or at ECHO at 65 S. High St.
For more information online, go to www.secondharvest.org.