Food banks cope with funding cuts, drops in donations, higher demand

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Food banks in Western Pennsylvania are trying to figure out how to absorb cutbacks of 20-25 percent in state funds and cuts of 40-90 percent in a federal emergency food program that have occurred in recent years.

"These state and federal funds used to be our steady funding that we could count on, but no more," said Marlene Kozak, Westmoreland County Food Bank CEO.

At the same time, food banks everywhere are seeing an increase in demand for help.

But the rising cost of food, in part because of this year's drought, means food banks will be able to purchase less food for those who struggle to feed their families each month.

Here's a breakdown of how the government cuts are affecting food banks:

Allegheny County

Lisa Scales, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said funds in the new state budget for Allegheny County have been cut to $1.1 million this year, from $1.4 million last year, or a 21 percent reduction.

Those funds are used to purchase food for more than 300 food pantries and member agencies in the county. The food bank, located in Duquesne, not far from Kennywood Park, serves about 67,000 people in Allegheny County each month.

Substantial cuts in the federal Emergency Food and Shelter program also have hurt.

Ms. Scales said the food bank received $280,000 in 2009 under the federal program, $255,000 in 2010 and $160,000 in 2011, and hasn't heard yet what it will receive this fiscal year. But this year's allocation is a 40 percent reduction from two years ago.

While state and federal funds have been slashed to balance budgets, food banks have seen an increase in demand, however, with the recent recession.

Ms. Scales said the number of people seeking help has grown by 44 percent in the past five years.

The bank has a budget of $12 million for this year in Allegheny County and has a staff of 100 people. It also serves several rural counties that don't have their own food banks.

Fundraisers now make up more than half of its budget because of state and federal cuts.

Donations of food items from companies have decreased in recent years, however.

"Companies are more efficient now; they have less overrun or mislabeled food, or they have excess food they can sell on the secondary market to discount stores," Ms. Scales said.

The good news is that the Pittsburgh area food bank has benefited from growing support from local farmers in the region.

"We had our best year last year for fresh produce; we got 5 million pounds of fresh produce," she said. "We have wonderful local farmers, who help us harvest excess crops, or we get volunteers to pick it."

The bank also has been helped by a federal commodities program, in which the government buys surplus food from farmers and distributes it to food banks.

Ms. Scales said the bank has received about 60 trailer loads of chicken quarters in the last couple years through the program.

"That has really helped," she said. "But the nation's farmers are doing better now than a couple years ago, so that will mean less surplus for us.

"And the drought in the Midwest this year will mean rising costs of food and fuel for us," she said.

Large fundraisers include an annual blues concert and a Garlic and Tomato Festival sponsored with Phipps Conservatory.

Even more worrisome than these cuts, however, are possible future cuts on the horizon, Ms. Scales said.

"Our real concern in federal funding is the current Farm Bill in the U.S. House," she said. "It will cut SNAP benefits [Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps] dramatically. If that bill passes, 130,000 people in Pennsylvania will lose assistance, and children could lose access to free school meals, too."

Westmoreland County

"Our state funds were cut $90,000 this year from last year," Ms. Kozak said. "We've been cut a total of $142,000 over the past three years. That's the money we use to buy food."

Under the state budget year that began in July, the food bank will receive about $300,000 for the next year, a 23 percent reduction from last year.

Federal funds have been drastically reduced as well.

In 2010, the food bank got $103,000 from the Emergency Food and Shelter program through FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This year, those funds were cut to $8,300, and they've been told to expect about the same for the new federal year beginning in October.

The food bank's annual budget is $3.6 million.

Those government cutbacks, and a reduction in foundation grants, plus two large emergency repairs, have forced the Westmoreland food bank to reduce the amount of food in monthly food boxes.

Ms. Kozak said boxes in August were reduced from about 90 pounds of food to 80 pounds. Theirs had been among the largest food boxes in the nation.

Funding from foundations is down about $300,000 from last year, so total revenue is down about $500,000 from last summer.

The food bank was forced to replace an aging freezer at its Delmont operations that cost $150,000 and to replace a leaking roof. That cost $250,000 and a foundation grant paid for $100,000.

The food bank serves 7,000 households, or between 12,000 and 15,000 people each month in community distributions at local churches and nonprofits. The food bank delivers the food and volunteers pass it out.

Because of reduced funds, monthly boxes will no longer contain a dozen eggs; the food bank also will cut out one jar of spaghetti sauce, one box of pasta and some produce.

A food box this month will contain: A 3-pound canned ham, a pound of turkey hot dogs, a can of sliced potatoes or corn, 1 large jar of spaghetti sauce, spaghetti or egg noodles, canned fruit, a can of baked beans or green beans, fresh carrots and onions, two boxes of macaroni and cheese, snacks, flavored water, and bread, buns or cakes.

"We hope it lasts a week, but for a family of four with two teenage boys, it may not," she said.

The food bank has stepped up its fundraising efforts dramatically in recent years.

"Our fundraising now makes up about 60 percent of our total budget," Ms. Kozak said. Ten years ago, it was about 10 percent.

Direct mail solicitations throughout the year raise about $1.4 million, and cost $180,000. The food bank receives about $70,000 a year through fundraisers such as an Empty Bowls event, the KDKA Turkey Fund campaign and a high school Turkey Cup Challenge. Two food drives in the spring, with the Boy Scouts and U.S. Postal Service carriers, are their biggest donated food drives.

"The last three months of the year is our biggest time for donations," said Ms. Kozak. "We decided we will still buy $10 turkey vouchers for our Thanksgiving food boxes, and hope donations by January will cover the cost."

Washington County

Lisa Nuccetelli, director of the Greater Washington County Food Bank, said state funds used to purchase food were cut 25 percent this year.

"I'm losing about $52,000 a year," she said, "Last year, I got $53,000 each quarter from the state, so that's about a 25 percent cut.

"And some of my food items that I usually buy are doubling and tripling in cost. I used to be able to buy a case of green beans for $3.90 a case, now it's $9.17 a case.

"Peanut butter has gone through the roof," she said. "It used to cost us $8 or $9 a case, now it's $17 a case. We just made a decision that we can only include it in distributions every other month instead of every month. I always liked to include it because it gives kids something easy and nutritious to eat after school."

The food bank distributes items to 38 pantries in the county, and food is given out to more than 4,000 households and about 10,000 people each month.

"We've seen an almost 90 percent increase in our households in the last six years," she said.

The food bank's annual budget is $1.1 million, made up of state funds, in-kind donations from local companies and major fundraisers. The agency has a staff of seven.

Ms. Nuccetelli said the food bank wasn't expected to receive any federal emergency food allocation, which is based on the unemployment rate, but at the last minute got $8,000.

She said the federal commodities program of surplus items has helped, but the items available have decreased significantly in recent months.

"At one time, we would have eight or 10 items that were available for us each month -- canned fruits and vegetables, meats and cheese -- but recently it's only been one item."

However, she said the U.S. Agriculture Department has announced it would buy up livestock from farmers severely affected by the Midwest drought, and she expects to get canned beef from that.

The food bank in July held its second annual Great American Food Drive, asking for donated food items as well as monetary contributions. But rainy weather cut collections way down from the first year.

Ms. Nuccetelli said the generosity of county residents will make the difference.

"It's the monetary donations that keep us going, people who give $25, $50 and $100," she said.

She said retail grocery stores in the county make up 15 to 20 percent of its donated food items.

And she said a group of dedicated businesses pitch in each holiday season to provide 2,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes.

Butler County

Debbie Gould, coordinator of the Butler County Food Bank, said this year's state allocation is down $34,000 to about $100,000, or a 26 percent decrease.

"That's a pretty drastic drop for a small food bank like us," she said. "That means instead of having $11,000 per month to buy food we'll only have $8,400."

"We're going to be losing some 100 cases of food per month because we don't have the state money to purchase it for the pantries" she said. A case of food can cost up to $15.

Ms. Gould is the only staff person at the Butler food bank, and the 26 food pantries in the county are mainly run by churches, who use volunteers to pick up the food from a central warehouse.

The food bank did see an increase in food from the federal commodities program in recent years and that has helped. It received 12,800 cases of canned fruits, and frozen fruits and vegetables this year, compared to 9,300 cases in 2011. That also included frozen hams and chicken quarters.

The food bank has seen a definite spike in need since the recession began in 2008. That year, it served 1,700 families and 4,200 people, she said.

In June, the food bank helped 2,177 families and a total of 5,572 people. That included 117 new families.

"People are still struggling," Ms. Gould said. "It's hard. Food costs so much, and kids are expensive. And utility costs are up."

"Our funding has dropped, but our counts are up."

She credited people in the county for their help.

"Our volunteers are wonderful; they are dedicated to the less fortunate," she said. "We have a lot of elderly retirees who volunteer."

The Butler food bank does not conduct its own fundraisers, she said, but individual churches, which run most of the pantries, will have to increase their efforts so the food bank can continue service at its past levels.

In general, food pantries serve households with incomes of less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that is $34,000 a year.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer:


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