“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.