For food banks, resources run dry after Christmas

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Food banks almost always see a decrease in donations and supplies after the holidays, but with dwindling government funding and more people seeking help, food banks and other charities are facing challenges year-round.

The thought of hunger might make some people imagine a line outside a soup kitchen on a city street, but a lack of food is just as much of a problem in suburban and rural areas as it is in cities.

The uptick in need is tied to low-wage jobs and unemployment, according to Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America.

"Where do people go when you live in a small town and you've lived there your whole life ... and your good union job just ended?" he asked.

The term "food insecurity" is defined by Feeding America, the leading domestic hunger-relief charity in the United States, as "a lack of access at all times to adequate amounts of nutritious food to enable a person to lead a life that is active and healthy."

According to Feeding America, 13.5 percent of families in Allegheny County and 12 percent of families in Westmoreland County are food insecure. In Fayette County, nearly 16 percent of families are food insecure, the third-highest rate in the commonwealth -- the only two counties with higher rates are Philadelphia with 22 percent and Cameron with 16.4.

One in seven Americans lives at or below the poverty line -- an annual household income of $24,000 or less for a family of four.

One in six is food insecure, and one in seven receives money for food from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Feeding America helps feed one in eight Americans.

"Of course they can't feed their families," Mr. Fraser said. "Of course they need food stamps."

Post-holiday drought

Iris Valanti, communications director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, said food pantries typically see an increased need during and after the holidays. Heating bills and other expenses can tip a budget and force families to seek help finding food, she said.

"Food is the flexible part," she explained. "You have to pay rent, you have to pay heat."

Ms. Valanti said the food bank, which serves 120,000 people monthly, receives 40 percent of its annual donations in November and December because a lot of people make charitable contributions around the holidays.

But the need doesn't go away after the holidays are over.

Marlene Kozak, outgoing chief executive officer of the Westmoreland County Food Bank, said the bank used to see a decrease in the number of people seeking food after the holidays, but not anymore.

She said the bank provided food for 7,800 people in Westmoreland County in December, and it's unlikely that number will decrease in the new year.

"People are chronically seeking food," she said, reflecting a trend in the rest of the country. In 2006, Feeding America helped to feed 25 million people. By 2010, the organization was supplementing the food on the dinner tables of 37 million Americans.

Ms. Kozak said most donations come in to her food bank during the last three months of the year. The food bank was running a deficit for the first 10 months of 2012, forcing it to decrease the amount of food in the boxes it distributes -- boxes might contain only one pound of pasta instead of two, for example.

She said she hoped to break even by the end of 2012, but she'd like to begin 2013 with a little extra so the food bank can restore the cuts to the contents of the food boxes.

"It pains me that we had to reduce the [amount in the] food box," she said.

The food pantry at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Greensburg gets 97 percent of its food from the Westmoreland County Food Bank. After the bank was forced to decrease the contents of the boxes in recent months, the pantry started buying additional food to ensure the 575 people who visit the pantry monthly received the same amount as before.

"I didn't want them to notice there was a shortage," said Sally Cowell, the pantry's coordinator.

Jim Stebler, director of the North Hills Food Pantry in Ross, said he supplements the goods from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank with meat and vegetables.

The Ross pantry has two sheds for storing food, he said. By the time of the pantry's last distribution of 2012, one shed was completely empty and the other was only half full.

Suburban hunger rising

A 2008 Brookings Institution report showed that between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the largest metro areas in the United States saw their population of poor people grow by 25 percent, almost five times faster than in cities.

Loudoun County, Va., is one of the richest counties in the United States. Mr. Fraser said the food pantry there didn't serve many people a decade ago, but now it is serving three times as many people as it was 10 years ago.

"We've continued to see hunger rise in the country and the suburbs," he said.

But the suburbs traditionally aren't as well-equipped to handle food distribution as the cities. Public transportation is usually limited or nonexistent in suburban areas, houses are spread out and roads often lack sidewalks, limiting walkability.

Mr. Fraser said he has heard stories about people who weren't able to take the food that was being given away because they had no way to get it home; a couple who didn't take additional food that was offered because they would have had to carry it for blocks; and a Florida woman who fainted while waiting in line for food for two hours.

Hunger is almost as prevalent in suburban and rural areas as it is in urban areas, Mr. Fraser said, but it's more challenging to get the food to the people who need it.

In cities, food pantries often are within walking distance of homes and some public transportation usually is available.

Mr. Fraser said mobile food pantry trucks are becoming more popular due to the increased need in areas outside of cities.

A mobile food pantry truck has refrigeration, which allows pantries to distribute fresh produce and perishable foods. While food used to be handed out from church basements, mobile food pantries can park pretty much anywhere to hand out food to people in need.

"It's a grocery store on wheels," Mr. Fraser said.

Funding problems, solutions

Federal, state and local funding to food banks and pantries has been slashed in recent years.

A decade ago, the Westmoreland County Food Bank received about $180,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Association's Emergency Food and Shelter Program. In 2012, the food bank received a little more than $11,000, Ms. Kozak said.

She recognizes that other food banks and nonprofits are in the same situation, and all of them have to do more fundraising.

"Where else is it going to come from? If the government isn't going to give it to us, and we're not getting as much food donated as we used to ... we have to raise money to pick up the slack," she said.

Ms. Kozak calls it a "fundraising treadmill" -- the bank used to hold fundraisers to generate about 10 percent of the money it needs annually. Now, it brings in 60 percent through fundraisers.

"In order to grow in any way, we've had to fund raise," she said.

She doesn't think the state funding will ever return to previous levels.

"I'd be surprised if it ever really turned around, honestly," she said.

But that's what needs to happen, according to Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an advocacy organization working to eliminate hunger, poverty and economic injustice.

He said the outpouring of generosity around the holidays is helpful, but it also leads to "donor fatigue" in the new year.

"In the anti-hunger movement, we have ... gallows humor that 'people are only hungry at the holidays,' because that's when we can count on folks to help out," he said.

As cuts to federal and state funding continue, food banks are forced to rely more on donors, meaning that fatigue could become a year-round problem.

Mr. Regal said food banks and charities do amazing work to help feed hungry people, but they are not a permanent solution to the problem.

What the United States needs, he said, is a "stronger, more compassionate, more resilient safety net" that makes it easy for poor people to get the help they need, whether it's food on the table, health care or supplemental income.

"Unless we fix that safety net and really guarantee people quality, effective service, we're not going to end the hunger problem," he said. "We're not going to make people safe from hunger. And we could do that if we wanted to."

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Annie Siebert: or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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