Hunger Pains
As Economy Slows, Charities Face Tall Order to Feed Needy

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."

At the Arlington Food Assistance Center one recent morning, every seat in the waiting room was occupied. Disabled people and senior citizens on fixed incomes joined a rising number of unemployed immigrant workers who have lost construction or housecleaning jobs.

"There is no work, like there was before," said Juana Perez, 34, who lost her house-cleaning job.

Recipients start lining up at the warehouse at 7:30 a.m., many arriving by bus or on foot, although the center does not open until 10 a.m.

"More and more people are reaching out to us because they need us," said Christine Lucas, the Arlington food bank's executive director.

Some charities that have operated primarily as private, donation-funded nonprofit groups are turning to state and local governments for help. The Arlington food bank recently asked county officials for $45,000 to get through the year, and it wants its annual contribution from the county to more than double next year, to $250,000 from $120,000.

Food banks in New York, Illinois and Louisiana have secured emergency funding from their state legislatures, Daly said. America's Second Harvest is trying to pressure the federal government to increase funding for nutrition programs.

The nation's food banks have been under stress for months. Food contributions by farmers have fallen because they are selling more products overseas, and grocery chains have cut back donations because they have tightened inventory controls. Many area food banks reported in late 2007 that warehouse supplies had fallen sharply as a result.

The economic slump started to hit full force last fall, area food bank officials said. People struggling to pay record utility bills or monthly mortgages turned to charities for food so they could keep up with other necessities. Many people who worked in the real estate and construction industries had lost their jobs or seen their incomes plummet. People first try to skimp on food, but eventually their larders are empty, they said.

"We're seeing a lot of working poor families," Gabala said. "They're working, but they don't make enough to stretch to the end of the month."

Jane Burr, chief of crisis assistance in Arlington, agreed with Gabala. Her department decides who is eligible for food aid at the Arlington center. To qualify, recipients must have an income of less than $3,226 a month for a family of four.

Food banks have become important because the federal food stamp program offers such skimpy benefits, she said. A person who gets $669 a month in Social Security qualifies for only $10 a month in food stamps.

At the Arlington food bank, those approved for assistance by Burr's office are given a bag or box of food, which includes a portion of meat (usually hot dogs or chicken legs), a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, canned goods, bread, baked goods and, when available, produce.

"If we have it, we also try to give a box of cereal, but you know how expensive that is," Lucas said.

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