Hunger Pains

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The economic downturn and rising prices are forcing many families to turn to charities for groceries, putting additional pressure on food banks that were already struggling to keep their shelves stocked.

Even the nation's most affluent areas, including those in the economically resilient Washington area, have been affected.

The Arlington Food Assistance Center served 710 families last year. This year, the agency has helped a record 868 families.

Manna Foods Center in Montgomery County served 1,600 families last year. This year, it has provided food assistance to 2,100 families who are being squeezed by high prices for housing, electricity, gasoline and food.

"We are seeing numbers we have never seen" in the organization's 25-year history, said Amy Gabala, Manna's executive director.

Nationwide, requests for food assistance in the past year are up 30 percent, said Maura Daly, a lobbyist for America's Second Harvest in Chicago, the nation's leading hunger-relief charity. The group provides food to nearly 200 food banks, including sites in all 50 states, the District and Puerto Rico.

"Food banks are living on the edge of catastrophe," she said.

Across the country, directors of food banks say their problems are multiplying because of increased need for food assistance and the increasing cost to provide it.

Officials at the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply more than 700 member agencies in the Washington region, have seen the group's annual electricity costs rise 35 percent, to $135,000 from $100,000, in five years. The Arlington center's budget for eggs has more than doubled in two years because eggs, which cost 95 cents a dozen two years ago, now cost $1.73.

Adding pressure to the Washington area's charitable giving was the recent theft of nearly 1,000 pounds of canned goods from Alexandrians Involved Ecumenically, a food bank known as ALIVE. The Alexandria group, which delivers food to about 12,000 people a year, discovered the theft last week at one of its three warehouses.

Fuel costs have increased, too. The Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida operates eight trucks that pick up and deliver food across the state, from Daytona Beach to the eastern suburbs of Tampa. At $4 a gallon for diesel fuel, it costs $680 to fill up the tank of one tractor-trailer.

"If that truck doesn't roll, the food doesn't go," said Dave Krepcho, executive director of Second Harvest. "I've been in food banking for 16 years, and outside of disaster relief assistance, I've never seen anything like what's going on. It's the cost of gas, the cost of food, and there's no such thing as affordable housing anymore."

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