* High commodity prices lead to drop in gov't food donations
* Food banks increase food purchases, straining resources
* Hunger relief groups bracing for more cuts to food stamps
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, Nov 21 The worst U.S. drought in
more than half a century has weakened the safety net for the 50
million Americans who struggle to get enough to eat, and the
nation's food banks are raising the alarm as the holiday season
gets into full swing.
Demand for food assistance - unrelenting as the U.S. economy
slowly recovers from the worst recession since the Great
Depression - ticks higher during the winter holidays.
This summer's crop-damaging weather in the U.S. farm belt
has driven up costs for everything from grain to beef. That
means higher prices at the grocery store, but it also means the
U.S. government has less need to buy key staples like meat,
peanut butter, rice and canned fruits and vegetables to support
agricultural prices and remove surpluses.
Most of the products from those government purchases are
sent to U.S. food banks, which then distribute them to food
pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters that are a
lifeline for people who struggle with hunger - including
low-income families, senior citizens and people with
The decline in government donations is exacerbating the pain
inflicted by stubbornly high unemployment and a lack of income
growth for many low-wage workers.
"People have been coping with economic distress for a
really, really, really long time ... After several years of
tapping all the resources we have, we're starting to see that
we're coming up short," said Carrie Calvert, director of tax and
commodity policy at Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger
Executives at major food banks across the United States
worry they will not be able to keep pace with demand, which they
don't expect to ease until more Americans find better paying
jobs. In a sign of how stressed the budgets of many Americans
are, a record 47.1 million people used food stamps in August
2012, up from 45.8 million the year earlier.
With such pressures at work, on-hand supplies at the Los
Angeles Regional Food Bank have fallen from a peak of about 3.3
weeks in 2010 to less than two weeks - the lowest in recent
history, according to its president and CEO, Michael Flood.
Tightening food supplies last summer forced the food bank to
start a waiting list because it does not have enough inventory
to expand beyond the 640 agencies it already supplies with food.
There are now 565 nonprofits on the waiting list, Flood said.
Government commodity purchases through The Emergency Food
Assistance Program (TEFAP) fell by more than half to $352.5
million for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, from $723.7 million
three years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of
While the stated goal of such purchases is to support
agriculture prices and remove surpluses, they also have been
vital to fighting hunger.
USDA told Reuters it would do all that it could through
TEFAP to support hunger relief efforts. It already is assisting
in New Jersey and New York, which were hard hit by Superstorm
Government commodities once made up 28 percent of the food
flowing through the Feeding America network, which includes
about 90 percent of U.S. food banks and provides food for about
37 million people during the year. This year those commodities
account for 17 percent, Feeding America said.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina has
seen its monthly supplies of TEFAP products plummet by roughly
two-thirds to about 170,000 pounds from 500,000 pounds. At the
same time, state budget cuts have slashed its annual funding by
about half to $500,000, Executive Director Clyde Fitzgerald
"Either one without the other would be enormously adverse to
our ability to meet the need," Fitzgerald said. "We've spent $1
million buying food, but we haven't come close to making up for
Barbara Prather, executive director of the Northeast Iowa
Food Bank, also is buying more food after government commodity
donations fell by 50 percent to 700,000 pounds in the fiscal
year ended June 30.
"We were, because of purchasing and local donations, able to
bridge that gap by about 300,000 pounds, so our net difference
was about 400,000 pounds," Prather said.
The picture is similar elsewhere.
At the Greater Chicago Food Depository, food purchases have
more than doubled in recent years to account for 27 percent of
overall supply, a spokesman said.
That strain shows up in the size and quality of food
packages that nonprofits give to people who need to supplement
food stamp benefits or whose meager incomes are a bit too high
to qualify for food stamps or other government assistance.
Last week, women with young children, single men dressed in
combat fatigues and senior citizens - some in wheel chairs -
gathered at Monrovia, California's Foothill Unity Center to pick
up rations, including staples like eggs, salad, milk and bread.
"We used to give more in those shopping carts," said Betty
McWilliams, the executive director of the Los Angeles-area
center. For example, carts now have six or seven cans of food
rather than nine, she said.
Thus far the center, which is supplied by the Los Angeles
Regional Food Bank, has not had to turn anyone away.
Rochelle Fisher, 52, was grateful for what was available and
credited the center's free food and healthcare services for
getting her back on her feet.
"If they wouldn't have been there for me, I would have been
starving to death," said Fisher, who just got a job at a
homeless shelter where she used to stay.
Anti-hunger groups expect some relief from a planned $170
million TEFAP purchase that will send pork, chicken, lamb and
catfish to U.S. food banks over the coming months.
But they are bracing for more challenges in 2013. Food
prices are forecast to move even higher, making it harder for
people with limited means to stretch their money.
Current proposals for the new U.S. farm bill - which sets
funding for TEFAP and the food stamp program - include small
increases for TEFAP.
But those increases would be dwarfed by proposals for
billion-dollar cuts to the food stamp program.
Washington's the "fiscal cliff" fight over planned tax
increases and spending cuts due to start in January is adding to
the anxiety, since sharply partisan U.S. lawmakers need to come
together to avert a big hit to the economy that likely would
hurt the country's most vulnerable.
Donors such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Kroger Co
say they have increased both cash and food donations.
Most food bank executives quoted in this article said
private and corporate donations seem to be holding up, despite
increased competition for every dollar. Still, they say such
charity is not enough to offset the decline in federal support.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition
against Hunger, worries that funding for feeding programs could
fall victim to the optimistic American view that things will
always work out in the end.
"Often, in the real world they don't. People suffer more,"