CHICAGO The recession is prompting the leading hunger relief charity in the United States to speed up its current development plan by two years to meet demand for its services.
Feeding America, which changed its name from America's Second Harvest last fall, wants to hit its 2012 target of distributing 2.95 billion pounds of food and serving 30 million Americans by 2010 instead, Chief Executive Vicki Escarra said on Tuesday.
"We are planning on accelerating the five-year plan by two years," she said at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit. "In essence, we plan to get that 1 billion pounds of new food by 2010 just to meet the demand. We don't have a choice."
Feeding America's network of more than 200 U.S. food banks distributed 2.17 billion pounds of food in its 2008 fiscal year, up 2.4 percent from the previous year. It also served 25 million Americans.
Through the first seven months of the 2009 fiscal year, which ends in June, the charity had distributed almost 1.44 billion pounds of food and raised $56.3 million in funds. Escarra said Feeding America will top its 2009 targets by 20 percent and more than 30 percent, respectively.
That success is necessary, Escarra said, because demand is rising along with the unemployment rate.
"We're seeing demand (for services) up across the country north of 30 percent," she said, adding that more than half of the increase were people who had not visited a food bank before.
Feeding America officials pointed to the nearly 32 million Americans on food stamps in December -- or more than one of every 10 Americans -- as the highest rate ever. And unemployment, at 8.1 percent, will only continue to rise in the short term, Escarra said.
Funds and food donated by individuals and corporations like Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), Kraft Foods Inc KFT.N, General Mills Inc (GIS.N) and Kroger Co (KR.N) are up, Escarra said.
The charity is pushing to collect more food from food retailers across the United States, Escarra said. Simply having a program collecting food from every Wal-Mart store would provide 100 million pounds of food annually.
Feeding America currently collects food from 3,500 U.S. retailers and intends to push that number to 10,000 in the next two years as it expands its fleet of refrigerated trucks, she said.
It also has increased its public relations efforts to raise public awareness, receiving prominent mention on such popular TV shows as NBC's "The Biggest Loser," Escarra said. Its entertainment council includes such actors as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, chef Mario Batali and musician Josh Groban.
The charity also is pushing for better tax credits for companies that donate foods, and reauthorization of an act that provides free and reduced-cost food programs for children.
(For summit blog: blogs.reuters.com/summits/)
(For more on the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit, see [ID:nSP463170])
(Editing by Phil Berlowitz)