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Food Pantries Face Shortages amid Holiday Season

December 19, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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This week, business giants Wal Mart and Con Agra announced significant donations to the nation's food pantries in response to a critical shortage of supplies at food banks across the country this holiday season. Elizabeth Brackett reports on what's being done to help ease the problem.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, food banks under pressure. This week, two big companies — Wal-Mart and ConAgra — announced the donation of 85 truckloads of food to the nation’s food pantries. The gifts are badly needed, as food banks face a critical shortage this holiday season.

NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago has our report.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: The food disappears quickly in this Chicago food pantry, and that’s a big problem, says pantry director Deb Ocampo.

DEBRA OCAMPO, United Methodist Church Pantry: Supplies have gone down to from about two-thirds of what we were actually getting before. Where we were getting seven cases, we’re now getting one or two cases of vegetables, same thing with the fruits. We get no fruit at all.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ocampo says the last few months have been the toughest she has seen.

DEBRA OCAMPO: From week to week, we worry if, “Are we going to be able to stay open this week? Are we going to be able to feed the people that come in?”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This food pantry on the west side of Chicago, run by the Chicago Christian Industrial League, is asking the same question. After only an hour of giving out food, shelves were nearly bare.

Vicki Escarra, executive director of America’s Second Harvest, estimates that more than 35 million Americans do not have access to enough food to stay healthy.

VICKI ESCARRA, America’s Second Harvest: This is a really critical time. We have made a call out to all of our major food manufacturers and retailers. We’re seeing a 30 percent reduction in Florida, a 40 percent reduction in California in the amount of food that they’re bringing in. They’re having to turn people away during a really critical time of year.

Many faces of hunger

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Pam Shanks never thought she would have to use a food pantry, but she lost her job when the company where she had worked for 15 years went out of business.

PAM SHANKS: A friend of mine told me about coming here, so this is my first time here. And if it wasn't for coming here, or people don't give food to places like this, there won't be food for people to eat for holidays or even non-holidays.

VICKI ESCARRA: Typically I think Americans view this issue as being homeless people, but these are 25 million Americans, nine million children, three million senior citizens. So this is a critical issue for people that otherwise don't have a way to make a living and get food.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The faces of the hungry have changed. David Suarez, a retired contractor, and his wife, Barbara, were doing well until he was diagnosed with cancer and she was diagnosed with traumatic shingles. Medical bills overwhelmed them. And for the first time in their lives, the Suarezs had days when they were hungry.

Suarez then remembered the Methodist food pantry just around the corner.

DAVID SUAREZ: I knew I had to swallow my pride. It was difficult. And so finally I walked in there, and I know a lot of the people in the neighborhood, because I was born and raised in this neighborhood.

And, you know, I'm going to be 67 now, was there almost 50 years. And so I went in there, and the people inside there -- they made you feel welcome. And they told me, "Don't walk around with your head down, because everybody goes through it." Well, I never expected to be "everybody."

Drop in federal funding hits hard

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Local food pantries get their food from a network of large food banks and food depositories around the country. Roughly 30 percent of the depositories' food comes from government commodities; 60 percent from donations from the food industry; and the remainder from local contributions, local food drives, and purchased food.

The biggest drop in food has been from government commodities.

These are the shelves that used to be filled with food from the federal government, but that commodities program has declined dramatically. As a result, the food depository distributed 6.6 million pounds of commodities this year, but that's less than half of the commodities they distributed just two years ago.

That's because a healthy farm economy means there is less surplus food to buy. And since food prices are higher, the $140 million allocated for the government's Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, doesn't buy as much food as it did in 2002, when the program first began.

The new farm bill, which is under the threat of a presidential veto, would increase that amount to $250 million. That would make a big difference, says Chicago Food Depository Executive Director Kate Maehr.

KATE MAEHR, Chicago Food Depository: Well, I'll tell you what it's going to mean. If we could have a TEFAP program that provided $250 million worth of commodities for this country, it means that the shelves in this facility would have commodities. We're talking about basic, quality foods, so juices, vegetables, rice, beans. That food would flow out to this network of pantries that we partner with all throughout this community.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The farm bill also includes new money for fruits and vegetables, says USDA Undersecretary Kate Houston.

KATE HOUSTON, U.S. Department of Agriculture: The president has proposed this part of its farm bill proposals to increase spending for fruits and vegetables for all of our nutrition assistance programs. We expect that TEFAP would be the primary beneficiary, primarily to offset the recent decline in bonus commodities.

Private donations also low

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the passage of the farm bill will not alleviate the immediate crisis food pantries face. And it's not just government commodities that have dropped. Kate Maehr says donations from the food industry have also declined.

KATE MAEHR: Salvage donations. So these are the dented cans or the boxes that are a little bit crunched that get pulled off of a shelf at a retailer, and that's what we've seen a general decline in. And that's been happening for years.

And it really comes from efficiency. It comes from warehouses having better operating systems, computers controlling more of the work that's being done. But that means, at the end of the day, there are fewer dented cans and crushed boxes that are available for food banks, and that's part of the changing landscape of being a food bank.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Chicago, Dominick's has made major contributions to food pantries and the Chicago Food Depository. Nationwide, Dominick's parent company, Safeway, donated over $110 million to food banks last year.

But Dominick's' Wynona Redmond acknowledges that traditional contributions are down.

WYNONA REDMOND, Dominick's: It's no secret that all food banks are feeling a pinch because the product supply availability has decreased at a time where the need has just continued to soar.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dominick's has tried to make up the gap in donations by partnering with the food depository in a major food drive.

SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Would you like to make a donation to the food depository?

SAFEWAY CUSTOMER: Sure.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The grocery chain also asks customers to contribute to the food depository by buying food dollars. These campaigns are more important now than ever before, says Maehr.

KATE MAEHR: And because years ago in food banking we really didn't necessarily see food drives as such a key source of food for us, but now food drives are becoming a critical source of food for us. We need everyone in the community to go out and put a can in a bin when they see it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Can that make up for the losses you've sustained?

KATE MAEHR: I believe it can. And I'll tell you, if I didn't believe it, I couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Without a big increase in contributions before the end of the year, Maehr feels that hunger will be a part of far too many Americans' holiday season.