Food Banks Adapt for Lean Times

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

The people who feed the needy are getting creative.

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.

"Rescuing food from stores is always something we wanted to do . . . but frankly, it's difficult. It's not profitable [for businesses]," said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

Rescuing food has also become somewhat more complicated as American diets have shifted away from canned food -- long the staple of food drives -- and toward more fresh fruits and vegetables. The growing demand for fresh produce, however, has created new supply and logistical problems for food banks. Transporting fresh fruit and vegetables requires refrigerated trucks, which use more gas. Storing them demands more refrigerator space.

According to Fraser, in 2002, for every dollar Feeding America spent on transportation it was able to move 100 pounds of food. Now, a dollar will move 50 pounds of food. "We are spending far more than we used to on transportation costs," he said.

Lower gas prices should help bring down those costs. But there is still the expense of buying fruit and vegetables. Many food banks have no choice but to pay for it because they can't count on getting enough through donations. In fiscal year 2007, Feeding America food banks spent $167 million buying 300 million pounds of food, Fraser said.

At the Maryland Food Bank, as much as 60 percent of the on-hand inventory consists of purchased food. That figure was closer to 20 percent five years ago, Flateman said.

So innovation is key. Food banks across the country have tried to cut costs by buying shares of orchards or even entire farms. Flateman is working on finding dairy farmers who would be willing to supply the food bank with fluid milk at cost.

The Maryland Food Bank is also building a commercial kitchen at its site in Baltimore where it can make meals out of salvage food that are then flash-frozen to be distributed at a later date. Having a kitchen will also allow the food bank to buy items such as cereal in bulk. In the past, it wasn't able to because it lacked the proper facilities to repackage the cereal.

Having a kitchen "will open up a whole line of product we can't access," Flateman said.

Feeding America is pursuing another strategy: consolidating the buying power of food banks nationwide. It wants to be able to buy for its entire network and has hired supply-chain experts from the food industry to figure out how to distribute that food to its members. The goal is to feed 1 million more people each year, Fraser said.

More of those people are likely to be working poor. More than a third of people served by food banks come from a household where one adult is employed. "We are serving a higher class of people as time goes on," Fraser said.

The demographic shift poses a special challenge for food pantries. Because the head of a household can't always make it to a food pantry when it is open, some food pantries have experimented with distributing groceries to parents at schools. In a similar vein, Manna Food Center serves 600 children who attend Montgomery County Schools through its "smart sacks" program. The kids receive backpacks full of food on Fridays to take home and bring the empty bag back on Monday to be refilled for the following weekend. So far the program is in 21 elementary schools with plans to expand to two more in the coming weeks, said Lanigan.

The way people can help food pantries and food banks needs to evolve, too. While food drives remain a major source of food, they are expensive and inefficient, several anti-hunger program directors said. So some food banks are turning to virtual food drives, where donors can order bulk quantities online that are then shipped directly to food bank warehouses.

With traditional food drives, "we've got staff time, dropping off bins, sending drivers in trucks," Flateman said. "You can go into your local retailers and spend a couple of bucks on two cans of beans but if you spend 12 [dollars] you can get a case of 24."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company