Food Banks Face Shortages in Economic Downturn

November 27, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Food banks and charities around the country are experiencing shortages as the economy continues to slide. In a two-part report, Tom Bearden examines how food banks are faring and Ray Suarez talks to analysts about the rising number of Americans using food stamps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a two-part look on this Thanksgiving Day at the growing demand for food in the U.S. during tough economic times.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden begins with this report on the pressures food banks are facing.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: These days, the lines start to form at least an hour before they actually open the doors at the Metro CareRing food pantry in Denver.

Jon Holmer has been running the place for the last six years.

JON HOLMER, Executive Director, Metro CareRing: We have seen just seen phenomenal increases in our client loads. We’ve had — two months ago, had a 60 percent increase over the previous year. Prior to that, a 20 percent increase. And after that, 30 percent increase, so it’s just going up and up and up.

TOM BEARDEN: Holmer says a lot of people who have never visited a food pantry before are now showing up looking for help.

The Denver area is just now starting to feel the pinch of the tightening economy. Recently, high-tech companies announced a round of layoffs, and the unemployment rate has gone up by more than 25 percent.

Nakia Rashid is one of those seeking help. A mother of two, she was laid off from her job in the health care industry and now collects unemployment while trying to find another job.

NAKIA RASHID: If you’re going from paycheck to paycheck, unemployment, or, you know, paycheck, it helps out in between.

Price of food has gone up. The price of gas going down have helped out a lot. Food prices are still ridiculous. It’s outrageous. And if you don’t have any help, if you have a lot of mouths to feed, it’s hard.

And I have a 15-year-old, too, as well. So doing that is kind of hard, so these places help out a lot.

TOM BEARDEN: Metro CareRing relies on personal and corporate donations to provide a three-day supply of food for each person who comes through the door, but those donations are decreasing.

Holmer says one reason is that a local grocery store closed. Other stores are holding on to food they would normally donate to the pantry longer, trying to generate more income.

JON HOLMER: Over here is where we typically have our produce. And one of the things that we’ve noticed about the produce is that it’s not as high quality as it once was, nor is the quantity as great as it once was, as well.

Usually we’d have three or four boxes on the floor. It’d be stacked up three or four high here. And now we’re lucky to get four or five boxes from our typical pick-ups during the week.

TOM BEARDEN: Thousands of food banks across the country are also struggling. Demand is up 25 percent over last year, and food banks in Seattle, Missouri and Alabama have closed, running out of money and supplies.

In Stockton, California, where last month layoffs reached their highest level in seven years, the line at this food bank went around the parking lot. They’ve seen a 10 percent increase in demand.

Kristine Gibson, the food bank’s community outreach manager, says previous donors are now clients.

KRISTINE GIBSON, Food Bank Community Outreach Manager: With the economic downturn and the unemployment rate in San Joaquin County just on the rise, people who used to donate to us, either, you know, doing food donations or financial donations, we’re starting to see them as clients now, because they’ve either lost their job, things have gotten tight in the home with, you know, at one point, gas prices going up, food prices going up, that they can’t make ends meet for one reason or another, so, yes, now they’re coming down and visiting us as a client and waiting in line.

TOM BEARDEN: Spencer Stuart was recently laid off of from Toyota Motors.

SPENCER STUART: Especially at places like this, the lines are getting longer. There’s a lot more people. And it’s just hard to keep money, hard to get a job. I hope it changes around. I’m ending up — I have to go and go back to school because I can’t get a job somewhere else.

TOM BEARDEN: Not just food banks are concerned. The Denver Rescue Mission soup kitchen is also overwhelmed. Brad Meuli is the director of the mission.

BRAD MEULI, Denver Rescue Mission: We are serving more people than we ever have before. If we look at October in ’07 to October in ’08, we fed 7,000 more people. We provided almost 1,000 more nights of shelter.

And so, in this tough economy, in this time that we’re living in, I mean, I can tell you that we’re serving more people than we ever have before, if we just compare those two months.

TOM BEARDEN: On this day, the rescue mission received more than 2,000 turkeys from Safeway for their annual Thanksgiving drive, but that still left them short of their goal of 6,000. The mission has issued a plea for more donations.

But even though Safeway is stepping up donations today, company spokesperson Kris Staaf says many more organizations are now looking for help.

KRIS STAAF, Safeway: These tough economic times really have generated a lot of requests. But, again, we look at each one on a case-by-case basis. We’ve actually been able to, I think, step it up this year, which is tremendous, especially when folks need it most.

TOM BEARDEN: Back at Metro CareRing, they had to close the doors only 10 minutes after opening. Too many people, not enough food.

JON HOLMER: I’m afraid that we’re not going to have enough food to be able to provide for everybody who comes through our doors. And the other food pantries in the area are facing the same kind of things.

I hear these same kind of statistics, same kind of concerns from all of them, and I’m really worried for what’s going to happen by the end of the year.

TOM BEARDEN: Recently, Wal-Mart donated $2.5 million, and the Wells Fargo Foundation has given $1.2 million to food banks around the country to help get through these tough times.

But even with the donations, many food bank directors are still afraid they won’t have enough food to meet demand during the holidays.

Measuring increased food need

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has more about the rising need and changing demographics of those seeking food aid.

RAY SUAREZ: For some perspective on the growing need in this economy, we turn to two people who've been working on the problem.

Jim Weill is president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy and policy group. And Paul Ash is the executive director of the San Francisco Food Bank. Last year, his organization distributed more than 27 million pounds of food.

Jim Weill, when you're trying to measure something like food insecurity in a continent-sized country of more than 300 million people, what do you keep an eye on? How do you measure increased food need?

JIM WEILL, Food Research and Action Center: Well, there are really two ways, Ray. One, the Census Bureau and Department of Agriculture go out and survey families and do a precise measurement that tells us that, in 2007, there were 36 million people struggling with hunger in this country.

The problem with that is there's a time lag there, so all the effects of the recession don't show up in those '07 data.

And the current data -- we have a sense of what's happening from the huge increase in need shown at food stamp offices and school lunch programs, at WIC programs, and at food banks and food pantries and other social service agencies.

RAY SUAREZ: So you can say with some security, in late 2008, there are more people in trouble than there were a year ago at this time?

JIM WEILL: Absolutely. We know there are 3 million more people on food stamps as of August, which is the last month for which there are data, than there were 15 months ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you measure broad things in the economy, unemployment is up, inflation is up, economic activity is down, how do those big measurements visit themselves on individual families and drive them into greater food insecurity?

JIM WEILL: Well, when families lose their jobs, lose their incomes, they become food insecure, and they show up at food stamp offices and also at food banks, but also when their wages go down.

When a family's -- either because one person out of two loses their job or they go from full-time to part-time work and income goes from $30,000 or $40,000 a year to $15,000 or $20,000 a year, they start struggling tremendously then, too, and they also show up at the food stamp and school meal programs and the WIC offices, as well as food banks.

Food often first cutback

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Ash, how are you seeing these broad economic trends visited right on the doorstep of your San Francisco agency?

PAUL ASH, San Francisco Food Bank: Well, our measurements are more anecdotal. When I want to know, you know, what's happening, I usually call certain pantries that I know keep good records and know what's happening with their clients.

And those pantries are telling me that they're seeing about 20 percent more people this month, this year, than they did the same month last year. They are finding more people who appear to be new to the food assistance world, people who act out of place, who feel uncomfortable.

They have strategies to try to make people more comfortable, but there's clearly -- and this isn't a 60-day trend -- as the stock market trend sort of is, this is really a month-by-month slide that we've seen over the last year.

RAY SUAREZ: Do these things bite worse at the end of the month, as here we are at the end of November, Thanksgiving time?

PAUL ASH: Well, it bites worst at the end of the pay period, so just depending on how someone is paid. We always see more people showing up to a pantry if the distribution is in the last few days of the month, or the, you know, 13th, 14th, 15th of the month, just before someone can expect their paycheck.

RAY SUAREZ: San Francisco is a pretty high-cost-of-living area. And I guess if you can't talk down the rent and you can't tell the electric company you'd like to pay less per kilowatt hour, food might be one of the areas that you try to stretch in the family budget?

PAUL ASH: Well, food is almost always the first thing to go. You know, you've got to pay your rent. You don't want to get evicted. You've got to buy your Fast Pass, if you're a worker, and you've got to get to work. You've got to get on the bus to get there.

Food is the one thing that you can just parse out your dollars very, very slowly. And so that's why you end up running out of food toward the end of the middle of the month.

The other penalty there is you don't buy the giant economy size. You have to buy the small size, so your dollar doesn't go as far. So there's a lot of penalties to living paycheck-to-paycheck and trying to stretch your dollars out for food.

Charities 'stretched past limit'

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Weill, you hear from our earlier report from Denver and from Paul Ash, your colleague in San Francisco, about this tremendous added strain. Are places going to be able to keep up with this demand if the economic downturn persists, if it's longer, if it's deeper? Will private voluntary agencies be able to handle it?

JIM WEILL: Well, they're already stretched past the limit, and so, in many respects, the answer is no, unless they get more help.

The good news is that the food stamp and the federal nutrition programs don't have caps on how many people can participate, so as more people become eligible, more people can be served, and we see that in the rising numbers.

The bad news is, a program like food stamps really isn't enough for a family to eat on for a month. And so like the people whose paychecks run out, when food stamps run out in the third or fourth week of the month, people then show up at the food pantries.

So, no, the food pantries are going to be overwhelmed, but also Congress needs to increase benefits for food stamp beneficiaries.

And, in fact, that's on the table right now, a temporary boost in payments in food stamps as a stimulus for the economy, as well as an important support for low-income families.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim, why don't you help us out with some numbers? If a family with one adult and two dependent children goes on food stamps, how much money are we talking about for the month?

JIM WEILL: Well, it depends on what their income is within the poverty band. If their income is up at the poverty level, it's less than if they have no income.

But the average food stamp benefits now are a little less than $4 per person per day. So it's a little more than a dollar per meal per person. And it's really not enough to provide a healthy diet, to feed everybody in the family. A lot of parents feed the kids first and skip meals themselves.

So that's why the demand at the food banks is so great, because the food stamp program, which is a great program and incredibly important to now roughly 30 million people, is not enough to get through the month.

Many combine sources of assistance

RAY SUAREZ: So, Paul Ash, if people are using food stamps, but also using your services to make it through the month, are you going to be able to keep up with the demand? Are the people who give you food and money giving as much as they were, let's say, last year?

PAUL ASH: Well, each sector is a little bit different. We see different trends in the food industry.

For example, food manufacturers and retailers, we see that trending down. They have found ways to sell food that they used to donate to food banks, and also they've become more efficient. There's less inefficiency, so they don't have excess food to donate.

The USDA commodities that most food banks distribute, it's kind of reached the bottom after six years of going down very steeply, so we're starting to go back up. So we hope this year we're going to see more USDA commodities coming out of last year's farm bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Weill, you just heard Paul describe an almost paradoxical situation, where efficiency, which we always think of as a good thing, actually leads to less supply for those most needy.

JIM WEILL: Right. Well, that's why ultimately we need to do this through the private sector, providing wages and benefits that are enough for families to support themselves, and through the public sector, filling in with these nutrition programs.

You know, I think Paul and most food-bankers would agree that most of the weight has to be carried by people's jobs, and Social Security payments, and also by the nutrition programs.

PAUL ASH: You're absolutely right, Jim. Someone just relying on charitable food is not going to make it. Those just relying on food stamps are not going to have enough food for the whole month. It's only those that are combining the two that are able to feed their families, feed themselves nutritiously.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Ash in San Francisco, Jim Weill in New York, gentlemen, thank you both.

JIM WEILL: Thank you, Ray.

PAUL ASH: Thank you.