Cupboards Are Bare at Food Banks

Volunteer Robert H. Coats restocks shelves at the Capital Area Food Bank, where the current inventory is dramatically below last year's level.
Volunteer Robert H. Coats restocks shelves at the Capital Area Food Bank, where the current inventory is dramatically below last year's level. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
 Reduced Donations
Inventory of the Capital Area Food Bank, the region's primary food bank distribution center, for the first week of December.
SOURCE: Capital Area Food Bank; U.S. Department of Agriculture | The Washington Post - December 08, 2007
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

Area food banks are experiencing a critical shortage of supplies as donations drop dramatically and as demand for free and discounted food continues to soar.

The Capital Area Food Bank, the region's primary distribution center, reported that it had about 230,000 pounds of goods on its shelves this week, down from 570,000 pounds at this time last year, officials said.

The short supplies, which are hitting food banks and soup kitchens across the nation, stem from a combination of factors: Federal supplies of excess farm goods have dropped, in part because of the summer drought and because farmers are selling more of their products internationally. Donations from grocery stores, a major source for food banks, have fallen as supermarket chains consolidate, increase efficiency and tighten inventory controls.

Overall this year, the Capital Area Food Bank is projecting totals to fall roughly 6 percent below last year's total of 19.5 million pounds. The situation has been particularly bad in recent weeks, officials said. At the Northeast Washington warehouse earlier this week, some refrigerated shelves, usually stacked with produce and meats, stood empty.

"We're getting a lot less food donated from companies and individuals," operations director Christopher Leal said. "We have really nothing."

At the same time, economic factors have conspired to force many more people toward the brink of hunger. Calls to the food bank's Hunger Lifeline are up about 37 percent from last year.

And it's not just in the District. The Manna Food Center in Montgomery County served more than 2,200 families last month, about 200 more than the previous November. In Fairfax County, Reston Interfaith's food service has doubled over the past three years.

"Good, working people are having a harder time making ends meet," said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith. "So far, we've not had to turn folks away, but we have limited the number of times we'll help someone. . . . You do less for more."

America's Second Harvest, the country's leading hunger-relief charity, is projecting a shortage of 15 million pounds of food this year at its more than 200 network food banks. That would be enough food to serve 11.7 million meals or fill 400 trucks.

At food banks from Maine to Florida to California, "demand is up, and food is flying out the door faster than ever," spokesman Ross Fraser said.

"Our inventories are as depleted as they've ever been before," Fraser said. "Our food banks keep calling here saying, 'My God, you've got to help us. We desperately need help.' "

Edward Cooney, who has been an anti-hunger activist since 1972, said he has never seen food supplies dwindling and demand rising the way they are now.

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