Monday, November 22, 2010

Hunger hits home: Area food banks see a nearly 25% increase in people in need

By G. Jeffrey Aaron • •

November 20, 2010, 12:00 am

As the tough economy makes it harder for families to put food on the table, food relief agencies are becoming more resourceful as they work to keep pace with the increasing number of people needing their services.

Food cupboards, pantries and community kitchens are reporting a rising demand for their help, and at the same time, they are seeing a steady stream of food donations coming into their agencies.

The challenge, they say, is making sure the supply of donated food keeps pace with the rising instances of food insecurity.

"Food banks started as a way to rescue the surplus food in the system, but the food industry has gotten better at reducing that waste," said Natasha Thompson, president of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier.As a member of the Feeding America organization, the Food Bank supplies products for 188 feeding programs in Broome, Chemung, Steuben, Schuyler, Tompkins and Tioga counties.

"The system has changed, the sources have changed but distribution methods haven't," Thompson said.

On Nov. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reported that more than 50 million Americans, including more than 17 million children, lack consistent access to a nutritious well-balanced diet.

The report, titled Household Food Insecurity in the United States, is based on data collected by the federal government in December.

The sharp rise in food insecurity during the latest recession mirrors the findings in Feeding America's report Hunger in America 2010.

The study showed that the number of people seeking emergency food assistance each year through the Feeding America national network of food banks has increased 46 percent since 2006, from 25 million to 37 million.

Close to home

Feeding programs across the region are reporting similar increases.

Edward Blaine, director of the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse in Binghamton, said the number of people using the services of his agency's 30 food cupboards and 35 community kitchens has jumped by 24 percent this year. The agency limits its activities to Broome County.

Three years ago, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier distributed 5.19 million pounds of food through its network of 180 member agencies. It was food that found its way onto the plates of more than 9,000 people each week.

This year, the agency is working its way to distributing more than 7 million pounds of food and is on track to serve almost 11,000 people each week through its 188 partner agencies in the six-county area.

Meanwhile, the 24 feeding programs that are partnered with Ithaca's Friendship Donation Network are seeing a 25 percent increase in the number of clients it serves each year.

"Every single day you read about a firm closing and what you are looking at is a family in crisis," said Sara Pines, Friendship Donations' founder and past director.

"They may lose the rental apartment or their home, the family may break down and abuse may start or continue at a higher level," Pines said.

"They are insecure and don't know how they are going to meet the necessities of food, shelter and clothing. It's a destroyer of families and unfortunately, it's rising every day."

With more mouths to feed, hunger relief agencies are becoming more resourceful in soliciting their food donations.

In days past, food drives sponsored by schools, churches and groups such as the Boy Scouts were adequate.

Now, as the need rises, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon as the volume of donated food from local sources complements increases acquired through government channels.

"Sourcing food is still a challenge and we do look out into the network to bring food in from outside our service area," said the Food Bank's Thompson.

"Since the recession and with the new farm bill and the stimulus package, there's more money allocated for the federal government's commodities program, so we've been fortunate to see an increase there in the last three years.

"Meanwhile, we're turning over every rock to source the products locally," she said.

Sometimes, that means coming up with some innovative ways of convincing people to donate food.

Canstruction competition: Each year, the Food Bank sponsors a Canstruction competition, where local groups use canned food items to construct buildings.

After the structures are judged and the awards passed to the builders, all of the canned food used in the contest goes into the Food Bank's warehouse and is eventually distributed to needy families.

The Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse is working with Binghamton University on a similar food drive, Blaine said. He also said his agency has received food donations from families where a child has had a birthday party and asked the guests to bring canned foods instead of presents. The food is then donated to the warehouse.

"It's the kids that are coming up with the idea," Blaine said. "They know someone else who's done it and things like that catch on."

Since the beginning of the month, the Corning Community YMCA has been holding its first food drive.

"It seems every time we turn around, we are being asked to bring a canned good to an event, so the decision was made for us to get involved," said Ann Galvin, the volunteer at the YMCA who is heading the effort.

But unlike other food drives, each week in the Y's five-week program is dedicated to specific food items.

Last week, the agency was seeking peanut butter, jelly, cake mixes and Jell-O. Next week, the targeted food includes pasta and canned spaghetti sauce.

During the food drive's final week, soup and cereal will be the preferred items.

The food collected will then be given to Corning's Family Service Society, which will sort the items and deliver food-filled boxes to the families enrolled in its Family Focus program.

"This is a hard time of year," Galvin said. "We're heading into winter, so we decided to get involved.

"Sometimes, people usually reach into their cabinets and start grabbing things out for a food drive. But by putting out the preferred list each week, as people go shopping, they'll hopefully remember, see the items and maybe buy extra."

While some groups place their emphasis on canned and boxed foods -- which can be stored in warehouses for longer periods of time -- agencies such as Friendship Donations Network look to move perishable products such as fresh produce and whole-grained breads.

That business model, however, isn't without its hurdles when one considers the relatively short growing season here in the Northeast and the ups and downs of the farming industry.

"We see the increase in need, but at the same time we've also lost some of the donors," said Lisa Duggan, Friendship Donations' program coordinator.

"Some wholesale companies we dealt with went out of business and when the P&C markets were purchased by Tops Friendly Markets, they stopped giving us produce," she said.

"But they give us other things and other sources have increased their donations. For example, the USDA farm in Tompkins County and Cornell University's farm have planted extra rows of produce that they give to us."

Because of the perishable nature of the food it distributes, Food Donations Network has its community-based feeding partners, located in Tompkins, Schuyler, Tioga, Yates, Chemung and Seneca counties, pick up the produce directly from the donors according to a pre-arranged schedule.

"Our 24 programs come to Ithaca and they are assigned a number of stores where they pick up the food," Pines said.

"Every single day, our sources give us 20 or 30 different kinds of breads, bagels, rolls and pastries. They also put out 300 to 800 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and we also have two sheds and they are assigned a quantity of food from the sheds.

To that same end, Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse operates produce farms at two Broome County locations and is seeking a grant to help it achieve its goal of tilling a total of four acres and distributing 15,000 pounds of produce next year.

By 2015, the agency hopes to increase its acreage to 10 acres and its production to 50,000 pounds of produce.

Distributing fresh food, which is more nutritious than boxed or canned food, comes with another issue -- how to cook it.

"A lot of people don't know what to do with fresh foods that don't come out of a can or a box," Pines said.

"We're finding we have to teach people how to use fresh foods. We use coordinators to handle the educational part. They meet people where they are and teach them how to cook the food."Thompson says her agency has partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension to go to some food distribution sites, set up a table and do a fresh food tasting.

She also said the state Health Department offers a mobile program where nutritionists offer educational program in various community settings.

"But there's definitely more room for that type of work," she said.

Is it all working? For the most part, the food relief agency heads say "Yes." But the degree of success depends on who's doing the talking.

"We're not falling behind, but we're not getting ahead either," said Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse's Blaine.

"More people are being generous and we're able to distribute more food, but we would like to be able to stock up our warehouse."

Thompson said her agency appears to be making headway, partly because of the Food Bank's mobile food pantry, which allows the agency to increase the amount of food going out to the high-need sections in remote areas.

She also said the Food Bank is expanding its retail pick-up program to include high-volume grocers like Wegmans and Sam's Clubs, who donate items they feel can't be sold.

"We were doing it on a small scale for a little while, but we recently obtained a truck through a grant so now we'll be able to ramp it up," she said.

A Time to Give

A Time to Give is an effort by The Ithaca Journal to assist our community's not-for-profit human service agencies.

Items listed are things most needed by the agency to help our community. Agencies with wish lists can send items to

Agency mission: to help build communities that care for all people by reducing poverty, promoting healthy individual and family life, collaborating with faith communities and advocating for social justice.

Two items most needed: 1. Blankets. 2. Men's and children's gloves.

For more information:

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