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Food Banks Adapt for Lean Times

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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

The people who feed the needy are getting creative.

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They have no choice, really: As more people lose homes or jobs, the lines for help with groceries are getting longer, while the size of food and financial donations is diminishing. Over the past few years, food pantries, which focus on immediate hunger relief, and the food banks that supply them, have also had to contend with rising costs for many types of food. Adding to the strain, they are spending a larger portion of their budgets buying fresh produce and meat -- expensive items that are often left out of donation bags.

For decades, getting food to the hungry was mostly about salvaging items that would otherwise go to waste -- soup in dented cans, loaves of bread about to expire and surplus production runs of tomato sauce.

Today, fighting hunger is just as likely to involve cutting deals with farmers for fresh produce, building in-house kitchens to produce frozen meals and arranging for working parents who can't make it to a food pantry to pick up a bag of groceries when they drop their kids off at school.

"We are taking our operations away from how we traditionally function," said Deborah A. Flateman, chief executive of the Maryland Food Bank. "We've got to think differently in this environment."

Food pantries such as Bread for the City in the District and the Manna Food Center in Rockville act as retail arms, distributing food in a particular neighborhood or region. They get the bulk of their supplies from food banks, which procure food and then distribute it to pantries across a much larger area.

The Washington area is served by two food banks, the Maryland Food Bank which serves hundreds of agencies across the state, except for Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Those areas, along with the District, are served by the Capital Area Food Bank, which also covers Northern Virginia. Both get food directly from grocery-store chains, donations, manufacturers and Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

Declining contributions have forced food banks and pantries to become more resourceful. In fiscal year 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program donated $240 million in surplus food to food banks and other programs. In fiscal year 2007, the value of those donations fell to $59 million.

At the local level, corporate and individual donations have also been down.

"We've noticed over the past couple years that it seems like people are stockpiling their own personal pantries . . . food is more expensive for everybody," said Kristin Valentine, a spokeswoman for Bread for the City, which operates food pantries in Shaw and Anacostia.

"One way to put it: We have donors that are now clients," said Tim Lanigan, director of food collection for Manna Food Center.

Less food also is coming from supermarkets. Thanks to technology, the supermarkets have also gotten better at keeping inventory and don't end up with as much surplus as they used to, Valentine said. And many supermarkets now sell some salvage -- food in slightly damaged packaging or close to its expiration date that is still safe to eat -- to discount stores instead of sending it off to food banks.


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