Cupboards bare at area food pantries as government donations drop and need rises

Scorching drought and rising demand across the globe have pushed the price of U.S. food exports to record highs this year.

That is good news for American farmers. But it’s bad news for the hungry, especially on the eve of the holiday season.

The booming market means that the federal government does not need to buy as many excess crops from farmers, resulting in a precipitous drop in government donations to food banks.

The effects can be seen even in the Washington area, home to seven of the most affluent counties in the country.

The Capital Area Food Bank, the central supplier of food for more than 700 pantries and nonprofit groups that help the region’s needy, has seen government food donations plummet 38 percent this year — about 1.5 million pounds of food.

“Food banks are really being hit,” said Lynn Brantley, the agency’s outgoing president. “With the drop in commodities, the higher cost of food and the higher cost of gasoline, we have to be ever-
creative at working at ways to fulfill a tremendous gap.”

The losses have had a ripple effect on Thanksgiving bounty this year: Some of the region’s smaller nonprofit groups have had to cut back, dig into their pockets or substitute cheaper foods to make up the shortfall.

Anne White, the volunteer outreach coordinator for Geth­semane United Methodist Church in Capitol Heights, said she has had to scramble for donations from friends and other local agencies that are already hard-pressed. Then, when White opened up the holiday bags for seniors she got last week from the food bank, she was surprised to see a bag of chicken parts instead of a plump turkey.

“They would normally get a nice turkey breast,” White said. “I attribute it to the economic crisis — everybody has had to cut back. But they are still going to get a nice, nutritious meal.”

She ended up supplementing the chicken with Cornish hens from private donors.

Turkeys are out altogether at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which serves Loudoun County and central Virginia. It ran the budget numbers in the spring and decided it could not buy turkeys this year because of a 43 percent drop in U.S. Agriculture Department food and other donations.

In Loudoun — the country’s most affluent county — the pantry has compensated for the shortage with outside donations and will hand out Thanksgiving bags to 2,000 people. But the pantry is short about 200 grocery gift cards for turkeys.

The poverty rates rose last year in the Washington suburbs, according to census data, so even amid the growing wealth in this area, more and more people are seeking help.

Anti-hunger advocates such as Brantley say they are continuing to see more formerly middle-class families asking for food because they have lost jobs or hours and the working poor, who cannot make ends meet because of the area’s high cost of living.

The Capital Area Food Bank, which opened a facility in Northeast Washington this year in response to the growing hunger crisis, is set to give out a record 33 million pounds of food this year, up from 23 million at the beginning of the recession. Calls to its emergency hunger hotline are up 22 percent this year over last, officials said.

“Everybody’s struggling and needs some kind of help,” said William Savoy, 50, a Popeyes employee waiting in line in the Dodge Park neighborhood in Landover one frosty morning, hoping for a bag of potatoes and maybe some onions from a mobile pantry.

The line formed at dawn, and those on hand initially passed the time in good humor, despite the chilly weather. They swapped recipes and talked about ways to cook the free pumpkins that were being given away. But things grew tense after the food distribution began and supplies dwindled. Some who had already been through the line and wanted seconds began trying to elbow out newcomers. A shouting match broke out over the last remaining cabbages.

“Can I have a gallon of milk? Please? I have three kids,” said Sadie Conteh, 43, a nurse’s assistant from Bowie.

In flush times, the ACTS food pantry in Dumfries would get a full complement of government food for its clients — including milk, eggs and cheese. That dwindled to a can or two of vegetables or fruit and cooking oil over the summer.

Meanwhile, “need has jumped dramatically,” said Rebekah McGee, the pantry’s deputy director. The agency serves more than 4,000 people — three times the number before the recession — and 1,500 have signed up for holiday gift-basket giveaway that began Friday.

Sondra Brazile, 42, a certified nurse’s assistant who is a widowed mother of four, said she has seen a decrease in the amount of meat and other protein she has gotten in her bag from ACTS over the past year — a direct result of the drop in bonus commodities.

Sometimes when times get lean, she said, she and the kids have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner.

“This year, I’ve seen a lot of change; sometimes there is no meat at all,” Brazile said recently as she stopped by the pantry to get her holiday bag. “But I thank God for what they have here. I take what they got and make a meal out of it.”

Bonus commodities were down 27 percent nationally this year until a $170 million purchase of meat this summer to help farmers affected by the drought, according to Feeding America, the consortium of the country’s food banks. That meat will not begin making its way to the hungry until after the holidays.

“Commodities now represent less than 20 percent of our total food volume, a decline of some 150 million pounds. That’s a significant loss of food,” said spokesman Ross Fraser.

The Agriculture Department typically has money budgeted each year to buy food for its emergency food-assistance program — about $260 million this fiscal year — and the bonus commodities add substantially to that steady donation. Bonus commodities have decreased from nearly 500 million pounds in 2010 to 371 million this fiscal year.

But with agriculture prices up 6 percent since the recession and expected to remain high through next year, bonus commodities are unlikely to increase, experts say, although market forces are unpredictable.

“Unless we see a sharp drop-off in prices, there will be less pressure for them in the future to make bonus buys than there has been in the past,” said Patrick Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

Both versions of the Farm Bill pending in Congress call for expanding the program’s funding while cutting dollars for food stamps, but lawmakers may not act before the end of the year.

 
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