Short on Supplies, Nation's Foodbanks Tighten Belts

Short on Supplies, Nation's Foodbanks Tighten Belts

Foodbanks around the country are reporting critical shortages that have forced them to ration supplies, distribute staples usually reserved for disaster relief, and in some instances close, the New York Times reports.

Experts attribute the shortages to an unusual combination of factors, including rising demand, a sharp drop in federally distributed farm surpluses, and tighter inventory controls that are leaving supermarkets and other retailers with less food to donate. At the Vermont Foodbank, food supplies are at 50 percent of last year's levels, while supplies at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank are down 11 percent. Elsewhere, demand for food is up 40 percent year-over-year at the New Hampshire Food Bank, while supplies are down 30 percent. "It's the price of oil, gas, rents, and foreclosures," said NHFB executive director Melanie Gosselin. "This is not the old 'only the homeless are hungry' — it's working people."

In part, foodbanks are suffering because farmers are doing well. Foodbanks rely on supplies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bonus Commodity Program, which buys surplus crops such as apples and potatoes. But a robust agricultural economy translates into shrinking surpluses. Last year, for example, only $67 million in food surpluses was distributed by the program, compared to $154.3 million and $233 million in 2005 and 2004, respectively.

The situation has led foodbank operators nationwide to lobby for passage of a farm bill currently stalled in the Senate that would raise emergency aid for foodbanks to $250 million a year, up from the $140 million that has been authorized since 2002.

Ginny Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, said many food pantries find themselves in the same situation. At a recent conference for foodbank employees, "everybody was saying the same thing," she said. "They're all hit by an increase in demand, all hit by the impact of the higher costs of food, and all hit by federal reductions. We just don't have the quantity of products available that we used to."

Katie Zezima. "Food Banks, in a Squeeze, Tighten Belts." New York Times 11/30/2007.