Tough times for food banks
Written by The Curry Coastal Pilot   
December 03, 2013 10:04 pm

WASHINGTON — Thanksgiving kicked off a busy season for charities and nonprofits fighting hunger, as the holidays seem to inspire many to make donations to those in need.

“It’s scary. Donations are going down and needs are going up,” Mary Boshart, warehouse manager at the Brookings Harbor Community Helpers Food Bank, recently told the Curry Coastal Pilot. 

 Boshart said the food bank has had to cut back on the amount of food it hands out daily. Purchases of produce have been reduced and fresh produce, which in the past could be distributed daily, is now limited to placement in food boxes, which are handed out only once a month.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also cut back on the items it donates to the food bank. Boshart said the food bank used to get 10 or 12 cases of macaroni and other items a month. Now they are down to only one or two cases a month. 

During the month or so between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, Oregon Food Bank receives roughly 25 percent of its annual donations, said Pat Kaczmarek, Oregon Food Bank’s marketing and communications manager.

“For us, the holiday season, especially between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is not a lull, it’s a big spike,” she said. Part of this is because Dec. 31 marks the cutoff point for charitable donations to be counted in 2013 for tax purposes, she said. 

The holiday spirit extends past people opening their wallets and checkbooks, she said.

“There’s a huge interest in volunteer work, and there are a lot of people out doing food drives,” she said.

But this year, there’s an additional strain on food banks’ and pantries’ resources. Increases to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, as food stamps are now known — put into place as part of the 2009 stimulus bill expired on Nov. 1. A family of four now has $36 less each month to spend on food; individuals’ benefits are down by $11 per month.

Consequently, the end of November has brought on extra demand for food as the new level of benefits don’t stretch as far. 

“We’re seeing longer lines at food pantries, we’re seeing requests there for food increasing 20 to 25 percent,” Kaczmarek said.

Some of Oregon Food Bank’s partners have been forced to stay open longer to meet the growing demand, she said.

“The other concern that I think we’re seeing from food banks around (the) state and from pantries, usually at this time they get extra donations that they’re able to stockpile for the coming months,” she said.

Donations tend to drop off dramatically in January and February, so organizations try to make the holiday influx last as long as possible, she said. Higher demand now means there will be less food for the lean winter months, she said.

“This year in particular, there’s been a real upswell in giving,” in part in response to the cuts to SNAP benefits, said Scott Cooper, executive director of NeighborImpact, a Redmond-based umbrella group that works with 43 agencies in Central Oregon to distribute food.

Charitable donations can’t possibly fill the void left by the cuts to SNAP benefits, he said.

“We did some calculations,” he said. 

Each year, NeighborImpact brings in about 3.7 million pounds of food. To offset the SNAP cuts, the network would have to collect an additional three million pounds of food, Cooper said.

“We’re not going to come anywhere close to filling that gap,” he said.

On top of that, Congress is poised to make additional cuts to SNAP. A Republican-backed proposal in the House of Representatives would cut $40 billion from the program over 10 years, while the Senate has passed legislation that would trim the program by $4 billion over the next decade.

These cuts threaten to counteract all the charity-driven anti-hunger programs, according to a new report released this month by the Bread for the World Institute, a Washington-based think tank funded by religious organizations.

While food banks and pantries account for roughly 5 percent of anti-hunger efforts, 95 percent of efforts are government-funded, Bread for the World president Rev. David Beckmann told The Guardian newspaper. It might sound minor to cut government funding by 5 percent, he said, but this would offset all the private efforts. 

The Nov. 1 cuts have already taken $11 billion from the program.

“Food banks are really not in a position to make up for a huge federal program like that,” said Oregon Food Bank’s Kaczmarek.

Hunger levels are beginning to level off, and even go down, in urban areas, Cooper said, but rural areas are still struggling.

“We’re not experiencing that (leveling off) here, because our employment base hasn’t caught up,” he said.

In September, the last month for which statistics were available, NeighborImpact distributed 18 percent more food than it did a year ago, he said.

People in rural areas often have to travel farther to buy food, which increases the amount of money they spend on gas. And with less competition and fewer volume-driven discounts, the food they buy can often be more expensive than it is in cities. 

While the Brookings food bank accepts donated food items, cash is more helpful— it can be used to purchase food at prices lower than those available to individual grocery store customers. The food bank can purchase a pound of food for 18 cents. 

“Give us $20 and we can buy a lot of food for cheap,” Boshart said. “You can’t go to the grocery store and get the kind of deals we get.”

The food bank operates on donations and volunteers, and Boshart said both are needed. 

Monetary donations to the Brookings food bank can be mailed to P.O. Box 1415, Brookings, OR 97415.

— Pilot Reporter 

Don Iler contributed 

to this report.