Food Banks See Surge in Demand

A different kind of bank is now struggling to keep up. With unemployment on the rise and more families fighting to make ends meet food banks are experiencing a severe rush.  “There’s been a dramatic and sudden swelling of demand over the last six months,” says Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, which works with 45 food banks throughout the state.

Nationwide, food banks are recording an average 30% jump in demand year over year, according to Feeding America, the biggest hunger relief association in the country. 

Here’s a closer look.

Visitors Run the Gamut
Folks seeking help these days, Rodgers says, include people who’ve lost their jobs or homes or both, and even some individuals who were donors at one time and now need to use the food bank’s services.

Donna Rodgers works at the United Food Bank in Mesa, Ariz., which tries to fulfill food orders for some 250 agencies in surrounding counties.  This year Rodgers says United Food Bank’s fallen short fulfilling orders by about two million pounds of food. That’s up 47% from last year.

“We’ve seen the gamut,” she says.

Over on the East Coast, the Greenpoint Interfaith Food Team in Brooklyn, N.Y., says attendance at their food shelter has doubled year over year.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who do construction work, domestic workers who’ve been laid off, freelancers getting less work. We also see a large number of senior citizens,” says Ann Kansfield, a co-founder of the food agency and co-pastor of the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn.

Keeping Up
While many hope the stimulus plan will help the country’s hunger relief efforts, food banks are trying to improve conditions on their own.  City Harvest, a food rescue and distributor of mostly perishable, nutrient rich food in New York City, says it is well on target to meet its goal of collecting 23 million pounds of food this year, a record for the organization.

“We went into this year knowing the economy would be rocky,” says Jennifer McLean, City Harvest’s director of program operations.  By focusing on perishables and collecting food with very little shelf life, City Harvest is there to relieve local supermarkets and grocers each day with their leftovers.

The Greenpoint Interfaith Food Team is hoping to extend their hours of operation to serve those who are employed who can only stop by during evenings and weekends. And at United Food Bank they’ve just started a program called “Store to Door” that eliminates storing some perishable items at a warehouse, which takes up time, space and money. Instead, the food trucks go directly from the donor (for example, a local supermarket) to the agency that distributes the food.  They’ve also started using alternative neighborhood distribution points, like a church parking lot or a local park. “It gives us a way to get food to [people] faster,” says Rodgers.

Purchase Programs on the Rise
Still another way some food banks are surviving is by charging for food. “Food banks can no longer rely on donated food like they did in the past,” says Sigler from the California Association of Food Banks. Traditionally, food banks relied exclusively on donated food from the food industry’s overstock or scratch and indent items. But that’s fallen nationally as secondary markets like dollar stores, discount outlets and overseas retailers have taken over.  With donations down, many food banks have to buy some of the food they distribute and pass on part of the cost to the community by way of “food purchase programs.” 

While United Food Bank’s agencies manage to still distribute free food, the group has also started a “Help Yourself” food purchase program, offering a bag of groceries for $16 that normally would go for $40 at the supermarket. It includes meats and a variety of produce and breads, and is intended to feed a family of four for three days. Demand for that particular program has risen 49% year over year, says Rodgers.

Pride Still Getting in the Way
Despite the increased demand, food bank operators believe there are even more folks in need of help who decline their services because of a perceived stigma. 

“You’d be surprised how many people are too proud to come,” says Rodgers.   “We have some people buying for others and leaving food anonymously on doorsteps.”

In our culture, it’s often hard to admit money is tight, even with so many of us feeling financial pressure. “Since the 80s especially, we [as a society] have looked down on people who need access to help from unemployment insurance to emergency food to food stamps and other programs often run by the government,” says Kansfield.  “Because of it people are hesitant to get help.”

But it’s important to realize that the notion of “needy” isn’t limited to those who are destitute. “I bet if you ask someone in our food pantry line, ‘Would you consider yourself to be poor,’ I imagine very few people would say yes,” says Kansfield. “They’d probably say, 'I have a fulfilling life.'”

And keep in mind that at most food pantries, your personal life is kept personal.  You don’t need to show your bank statement or a pink slip to receive help.  In fact, a growing number of those stopping by food centers these days are, in fact, employed, says Rodgers, but can’t support their families.

“If you’re making $10 an hour with three kids to feed, you need help,” says Rodgers.  The other danger in not getting the help you need, she says, is running into fatigue, an inability to concentrate and health issues. Swallowing your pride and getting some short-term food assistance can go a long way in your financial recovery and keeping you and your family healthy.

Additional Food Relief
Beyond food banks, food stamps may also be an additional source of help, especially if the stimulus plan is executed as promised.  Right now the plan calls for a close to 14% rise in an eligible household’s monthly cash benefits. For a family of three, for example, the boost may result in an extra $100 a month.  Food banks urge their attendees to look into government assistance programs.

“A lot of people who are eligible for food stamps are not getting them,” says Rodgers. “Maybe it’s lack of knowledge, a feeling of pride, the application process or a combination.”  At Rodgers’s food bank they give fliers informing folks how to get back on their feet, including information about food stamps. “We want them to find self-sufficiency and not make the emergency food box [they get here] a regular box of food.”   


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