December 11, 2007

When the cupboard goes bare: Food banks across the country are seeing unanticipated shortages. What is in store for Louisville?

Donations to food banks and soup kitchens experience a notable up-tick around this time of year, but those numbers tend to plummet, or at least flatten out, right after the holidays. Normally, government and commercial sources make up the gap between demand and donations from regular folks — but those supplies also get overextended about the time more people in Louisville need them. Stan Siegwald, director of development at Dare To Care Food Bank, said Louisville has had an increasingly difficult time feeding its hungry, particularly in the last three years, and the near future doesn’t look too promising, either.A 2005 Hunger Study, designed by a New Jersey firm and carried out by food banks across the country study, including Dare To Care, showed that more than 150,000 individuals received food from organizations that receive goods from Dare To Care, which supplies more than 300 service agencies and churches in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. The food bank is not simply a storage room, but a 55,000-square-foot state-of-the-art storage facility, said Siegwald, including the use of refrigerated trucks for delivery. Just two-dozen employees move a million pounds of food every 33 working days. “We’re not going to provide food to people that we would not want going to our families,” he said.A substantial portion of food bank donations come from two sources — bonus commodities and reclaimed products, those things big chain stores don’t sell for aesthetic reasons or because they’ve simply ordered too much. But those supplies are down 70 percent from five years ago. Corporate castoffs aren’t making their way to food banks for a couple of reasons. Siegwald said fewer grocers in Louisville — now we’re pretty much down to Kroger — means fewer extras. A secondary business — grocery stores that buy and sell dented cans or odd-numbered leftovers — is also proliferating, siphoning goods from nonprofits’ supply chain. Moreover, better inventory practices and technology help stores order more precisely in the first place.Bonus commodities — surplus food the federal government buys from farms — have also declined as growers have seen the best business they have in recent years. There’s no threat of rotting meats or veggies to encourage farmers to sell goods to the government below market value. Continuing aid to victims of the Gulf Coast storms of two years ago and subsequent disasters are also straining those resources, as has decreased funding for food programs under the hotly debated federal Farm Bill. Those issues have already been overshadowed by farmers dropping their food crops to grow corn for ethanol fuels. Along with a drop in supply on the private side, the drop in bonus commodities has led to shortages at food banks throughout the country. “We’re fortunate here; we have a great relationship with the community,” said Siegwald. He said local organizations, donors and community members have made an effort to fill in the gaps, although food drive donations have stagnated, if not declined. Siegwald said the food bank is working on development strategies to compensate for the declines, but finding out what works efficiently takes time.“It’s kind of been a race,” he said. “Can we get our new strategies implemented. And will they be effective in time to compensate for the decline?”“The bottom line in all of this for us is that we’ve been having to purchase significantly more food,” said Siegwald. Dare To Care now has to pay for food out of pocket — buying things like meat and fresh fruits and vegetables that offer more nutrition than canned varieties to make up for the dietary deficiencies people will encounter when they visit area agencies. “I’m sure they’ve felt the pinch. We have tried to step up as best we can. I’m sure they’ve seen a difference in the selection,” said Siegwald.It’s more than a pinch for chef Timothy Tucker at the Salvation Army Center for Hope downtown. He said the imbalanced supplies are a major frustration as he tries to deliver health, not just calories, to clients. An overabundance of grapefruit juice, which few people like, or bread, is not the chef’s idea of nutrition. Nor is the glut of pork, which he says has been just about the only meat for more than a year, save donations from deer hunters.“We’d rather have fresh fruits and vegetables, something that we can heal these people’s lives with, as opposed to just giving them a cake and pushing them out the door,” said Tucker.As Dare To Care tries to meet those needs, the higher food bills mean less money for transportation costs, which are on the rise. Pillsbury and Kellogg’s are happy to donate to food banks for a write-off, but Dare To Care must pay for trucks and fuel to pick up donations, and then to deliver them to facilities in its 10-county service area.At the same time, demand is growing fast. Of the hundreds of thousands who used food assistance in 2005, about half of them came from families with at least one working adult. More than 40 percent had to choose between feeding the family and paying for healthcare, or feeding the family and keeping the lights on. One care accident, one missed paycheck, can leave a family feeding itself with emergency food boxes. The country’s current economic downturn means thousands more families in urban, rural and suburban areas are depending on food banks for basic needs.Denton Randall, director of community relations at Dare To Care, said the food bank’s goal is not to eradicate hunger, but to help “shorten the line.” He said a history of widespread community support would remain crucial as the soup of large-scale pressures bubbles over in Louisville. But will they be able to fill the gap?“Well, we’re going to be scrambling,” he said. “We’re going to be working hard.” Contact the writer at jennifer@leoweekly.com