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Food Bank Boxed in By Rising Demand, Costs

June 23, 2008

By Erica Meltzer, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Jun. 23–Faced with skyrocketing demand and rising food prices, the Community Food Bank is digging into its reserves to make ends meet and even considering cutting back on the number of food boxes it gives out.

That’s not a step food bank managers want to take, and they say they will do everything they can not to.

“We’ve never turned anyone away,” said food bank Chief Financial Officer Dan Walters. Reducing the number of food boxes to each family “could happen, but we’re trying hard not to do that. If we did reduce it, maybe we could increase what’s in the box. But we’re trying really hard not to decrease what people get.”

The Community Food Bank prepares 16,000 emergency food boxes a month, compared with 11,500 a month last year. Those food boxes go out to 50 agencies that distribute them to individuals and families in need.

Roughly three-quarters of the food bank’s clients get one box a month, while the others get two boxes based on financial need or family size.

Some families qualify for more boxes, though if they need more than two a month, a social worker will see if the family qualifies for food stamps or other assistance.

But some distribution sites are not accepting new clients because they cannot keep up with the additional demand, and one site already has limited customers to one box a month.

To get food to customers turned down at local distribution sites, the food bank has opened its warehouse location on South Country Club Road, a step that increases its costs.

“We first saw the increase a year ago when the economy started tanking, and it’s continued to tank,” Walters said. “Is it the price of gas? Is it the price of food? Is it both? And people are losing their jobs.”

The financial crunch facing the food bank is not just from increased demand. Over the last several years, the federal government has bought less surplus food, meaning fewer government commodities end up on food bank shelves, and donations from food manufacturers have dropped as technological changes make the industry more efficient.

Food banks should start to see more commodities in October when a new federal farm bill takes effect, said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest, a national organization that secures surplus food donations and distributes them to food banks.

But changes in how and what Americans eat have had a lasting effect on supplies of donated food. Canned food once was a staple of emergency food boxes because it lasted a long time and was easy to transport. But the canned food industry produced just 21 billion cans of food in 2005, compared with 30 billion in 1970. Fewer canned goods overall means fewer trickle down to food banks.

And with computerized data management, grocery stores have more of what paying customers want and less of what they don’t, meaning fewer left-overs for food banks.

On the flip side, America’s Second Harvest shipped 144 million pounds of fresh produce to food banks this year, compared with almost none 30 years ago.

However, fresh produce presents more logistical challenges. And as the price of gas rises, so does the cost of shipping in refrigerated trucks.

“We have no idea how bad this is going to get,” Fraser said.

The food bank has a farm in Marana that supplements its supply of fresh produce and hosts farmers’ markets at which people can pay with food stamps.

Even so, the agency is buying more food than ever, and that food is more expensive.

Five years ago, the food bank spent $250,000 on purchased food. This year, it spent $950,000, $350,000 more than it had budgeted. And the food bank is planning to spend $1 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1, out of a total cash budget of $5.8 million.

Walters said the organization continues to get good support from the community, and he finds that working-class neighborhoods often provide more support than wealthier areas.

Even so, “this is a critical time for us,” Walters said.

The food bank pays the freight costs for food from America’s Second Harvest, and its leaders don’t know how high the price of gas will go.

If food costs continue to rise, the agency could again spend more than it budgeted and have to dip into reserves.

If distribution centers cannot keep up with demand for food boxes, the Community Food Bank may send mobile trucks into neighborhoods to distribute the boxes, but that would raise costs.

On the other hand, if distribution centers keep asking for more food boxes, the demand could outstrip the space and volunteer time available to pack and store the boxes. In that case, the food bank might send food in bulk to distribution centers. That would require more time and resources for those agencies to assemble the boxes.

Walters said social workers also will work more with clients to make sure they are taking advantage of every other resource available to them, whether food stamps, help from a church or community group, or emergency rental assistance.

The food bank also has a food-security program that aims to improve people’s independence in the long term. A key part of that is a program that encourages people to plant home gardens. The agency sponsors workshops in the fall and spring and will make regular visits to home gardens of people whose income is low enough to qualify.

Gail Stern, a retired teacher who receives emergency food boxes, said starting a garden through the program a year ago turned out to be a great decision.

“I go in the store, and my mouth just drops open at some of the prices,” she said.

She spends less at the grocery store and goes less often, saving money on gas, and has better nutrition, she said, than what the food boxes alone provide.

But she still needs assistance.

Michelle Kuhns, the home-garden coordinator, said she saw an increase in interest in the workshops this spring.

“The increased demand for food boxes is a short-term emergency, and in food security we’re trying to look at the long-term situation,” she said. “It highlights how important that is. When transportation and food costs go up around the country, that really impacts people. The more we grow our own food and use local farmers, the more resistant to that we are.”

DID YOU KNOW

The 1975 starvation death of a man in Phoenix was the impetus for the creation of Tucson’s Community Food Bank. Tucson Mayor Lew Murphy was determined to not let such an event occur here.

He named an emergency action committee to lead a campaign to raise $75,000 in money and food to help social agencies whose inventories had been depleted by spiraling requests.

The committee determined the best plan was to create a permanent city food bank to help the needy. On Jan. 2, 1976, the Community Food Bank Inc. began operation.

Source: Star archives

–Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or emeltzer@azstarnet.com.

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