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Food banks forced to partner with farms, fishermen

Saturday, December 13, 2008 | 5:33 p.m. CST

Vermont's only food bank is buying a farm.

In California, commercial fishing boats donated 260 pounds of rockfish this month.

And in Tennessee, groceries that are fine to eat but deemed unmarketable by retailers are being collected and prepared for those in need.

As traditional sources of donations dry up and demand rises amid a worsening recession, food banks and their volunteers are finding creative ways to make the best of a growing challenge — while the hungry try to make less food go further.

"(Hunger) has been a persistent problem but it's radically gotten worse in the last year since the economy has tanked," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, formerly Second Harvest.

The number of people going to Feeding America's food banks nationwide increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2005 to more than 25 million. A more recent figure was not available.

The nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Feeding America said some distribution centers in California, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio recently reported a 30 percent to 40 percent surge in demand from a year ago, Fraser said.

But supply is not keeping pace.

Over the past decade, food banks have seen a steady drop in donated packaged foods from manufacturers and grocery stores — historically their biggest givers — in part because industry has become better at forecasting consumer demand. The trend has been compounded by recession and higher food costs, prompting supermarkets to get more aggressive about selling any surpluses to low-cost food stores and other secondary markets.

Of course, today's hunger problem isn't nearly as bad as during the Great Depression — an era that is often invoked when experts talk about the magnitude of the country's current financial crisis. Those who are hungry in America today have a safety net in food banks, soup kitchens and a federal food stamp program, said John Bellamy Foster, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon.

"We have these programs in place that didn't exist in the 1930s and (they) will help a lot," he said.

Some corporations have recently come forward to help, including grocers and food manufacturers, whose assistance these days comes in the form of money and transportation services. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. last month said it will donate more meat and dairy products, plus $2.5 million, while Kraft Foods Inc. will fund a $4.5 million mobile pantry program.

To address rising demand, food banks and other nonprofits are trying to build alliances with farmers, fishermen and schools (think canned-food drives), while also working to maintain relationships with their traditional base of support.

"The need is great, and I think we are looking to the future," said Judy Stermer, spokeswoman for the Vermont Foodbank, which plans to close on the purchase of a 20-acre farm by May. It also recently bought a company that salvages farm crop surplus to help address a 25 percent surge in demand.

The hungry are also adopting resourceful strategies, such as embracing urban gardening and substituting cheaper foods — and it is no longer as common for people to wait in long lines at food banks to put food on the table.

For example, demand has increased 25 percent over the last half a year to 180 bags a week at Farm-to-City Market Basket Program, which delivers bags of up to 25 pounds of fruit and vegetables to neighborhoods in Chicago and across Wisconsin. The bags cost $16 but are worth $25. The majority who buy the baskets are middle- and low-income, said Will Allen, a former pro basketball player who runs the nonprofit Growing Power, which sponsors the food delivery program and promotes urban gardening.

"A lot of people are just too proud to go to a food bank, or food pantry or soup kitchen," Allen said.

Making the best of a difficult situation, Jacque Holland, 43, of Milwaukee, has substituted sausage she received from the food pantry for ground beef when she makes spaghetti sauce. Holland, who began visiting food banks after losing her temporary pizza factory job Oct. 31, also buys cheaper, canned tuna instead of fresh fish.

"Things are changing and you just have to change with it," she said.

After learning about the troubles food banks were having, a group of fishermen in Southern California donated boats, bait and deck hands for a deep-sea fishing excursion whose purpose was to supply FOOD Share in Ventura County, Calif. The first expedition was Dec. 8 near the Channel Islands, but more are expected.

"The true challenge will be to keep these types of activities going after the holidays — when people are not as apt to think about the hungry," said Ann Sobel, special projects consultant at FOOD Share.

A decade ago, 80 percent of the food donated to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee came from manufacturers and distribution centers, while the rest was purchased. Today it's the opposite, said Jaynee Day, the Nashville-based food bank's president.

For the past five years the food bank — the only one in the nation cooking its own food and freezing it on a large scale basis on site — has been cooking around 50 recipes with food donated from grocery stores that is still good but not marketable. They make on average 15,000 meals per day for 550 food banks in their area and in 43 states. Like many others, demand has spiked in recent months but monetary and food donations are way down.

"We've never been this far behind," Day said.

 


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