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Cupboards Are Bare at Food Banks
Drops in Donations and Farm Surplus Cause Area Charities to Run Short

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.

"I've been in a few food banks, and I've looked at the shelves," said Cooney, executive director of the Washington-based Congressional Hunger Center. "You just see huge warehouses where you see empty shelves. Ain't nothing there."

About 85 percent of food donations to the Capital Area Food Bank come from corporations, including grocery chains, chief operating officer Brian Smith said.

Just 4 percent are from individuals, and 11 percent are from the federal government.

Improvements in inventory controls and store-ordering procedures among supermarket chains have limited the supplies donated to food banks.

"Food retailers are in business to sell food and not to have a lot of discarded food," said Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher, who is also vice chairman of the food bank's board of directors.

Although the quantity of food that Giant donates has dropped, Scher said, proceeds from in-store campaigns in which customers give money for the hungry are increasing. And the Landover-based chain will continue to donate food to charities, he said.

The shortage is exacerbated by a decline in federal assistance. For years, food banks have relied on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's bonus commodity program, which buys surplus crops such as peaches and cranberries, as well as livestock such as turkeys, ducks and bison, from domestic farmers.

But the amounts of bonus commodities have dropped. Five years ago, the department bought more than $200 million worth of surplus products. In 2005, that figure fell to $154 million. This year, the agency is projecting $58 million.

"The reason that they're down, obviously, is that the farm market is doing very well," said Nancy M. Johner, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

Johner said farmers are selling more of their products internationally. That trend, coupled with a severe drought that affected much of the country this year, has left farmers with relatively few surplus crops, she said.

This is difficult news for food pantries and soup kitchens in the Washington region, where the Capital Area Food Bank estimates that more than 600,000 residents are at risk of hunger.

Bread for the City, one of the District's largest pantries, has served about 2,000 more families this year than in 2006, executive director George Jones said.

"It's a big jump," he said. "A lot of these families are people that have some resources, are housed, and use our resources to augment their incomes. They really are living on the edge."

With gasoline prices and utility rates rising and the economy softening amid a mortgage crisis, many of the region's working families are struggling to pay their bills and are seeking help at food banks and soup kitchens.

Bertina Fox used to donate clothing to Bread for the City. The 29-year-old from Northwest Washington said she never imagined she would someday come asking for food. But when she quit her job at an AIDS clinic earlier this year, she began coming to Bread for the City each month for a basket of fish and vegetables, as well as frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets for her 5-year-old son.

"When I fell on hard times, I knew of the services there," she said. "A lot of people can't make it day to day without them. I'm certainly one of those people."

Fox was to start a new job at an area hospital yesterday. Once back on her feet, Fox said, she hopes to start donating to the center again.

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