Area Food Banks Facing a Crisis in Food, Funding

The Food Bank of South Jersey has plenty of canned corn – up to 4,000 cases – row after row of it at the nonprofit organization’s 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Pennsauken.

“It’s enough for Iowa,” said chief executive officer Val Traore. “We also have a lot of empty racks because we’re moving [other kinds of food] out of here so quickly.”

Traore said Wednesday that a sharply increased demand for food and lack of financial support has created a “perfect storm of indifference and urgency.”

The Food Bank of South Jersey – covering Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties – faces a shortfall of $300,000 by the end of the year and is seeking individual and corporate food donations and financial help, Traore said.

Other hunger relief organizations such as Philabundance in Philadelphia, also have seen a spike in need: 65 percent more families seeking food assistance over the last two years. The nonprofit covers the same counties as the Food Bank of South Jersey plus Philadelphia and its surrounding suburban counties in Pennsylvania.

“This is literally a war we’re fighting,” said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, during an interview Wednesday. “We planned to break even [this year] or go into our reserves a little bit.”

In Pennsauken, Traore held a meeting Wednesday with representatives of the Food Bank’s network of 240 food pantries and soup kitchens to update them on the crisis.

“We’re distributing more than we have funding for and have had to go into our operating reserves for the first time in our 26 years,” she said in an interview. “We distributed 40 percent more food from January to October” compared to previous years.

The food pantries “used to come [to the warehouse] once a month, and now it’s weekly, and we’re being depleted,” Traore said.

In Philadelphia, Philabundance hired more workers to cope with the demand. It has 125 employees, up from 75 in 2007 when the economic downturn began.

“We have more trucks on the street and are pushing out more food,” said Clark. “It’s an all-out blitz to provide services that the community needs. There’s no question from where I sit or from where Val [Traore] sits, we’re in hard times.”

The root cause of the food shortfall is the state of the economy, which has left thousands in the area jobless, underemployed, and barely able to pay for housing, utilities, and car payments, Traore said. Many have run out of unemployment benefits.

These “new poor,” Traore said, have very limited food budgets and are showing up at food pantries across the area.

“We see former middle class working families more than ever coming into pantries, missions, shelters,” said Traore. “This is no longer an isolated urban problem.”

The Food Bank’s parent organization, Feeding America, recently released a “Map the Meal to Hunger” study, which showed that the number of South Jersey residents seeking food assistance has jumped from 100,000 a year to 170,000. About one-third of them are school-age children.
The study also showed that 51 percent of South Jersey’s population is ineligible for public assistance. They make too much for food stamps and other benefits, but not enough to eat, officials said.

“I have about a month of food. We need 3.6 million pounds more of food to get through the next five to six months,” Traore said Wednesday.

“There is an opportunity to get more [through the federal government] but it’s only more corn, more beans and more grapefruit juice,” she said. “There’s not a lot of variety, compared to 2009 when we were getting things that touched on all food groups.”

Philabundance has seen more food donations but has still been “forced to buy more food to keep the pipe open,” Clark said. “We’ve found funds to do that.”

The need across the region is all the more poignant because of the approaching holiday season.

“Everybody wants a bountiful table at Thanksgiving,” Traore said. “They want turkeys, stuffing, candied yams, and cranberry sauce.

“We try to supply as much as we can, but we have a shortfall of turkeys,” she said. “We have 16,000 available, and we need 40,000 to 50,000.”

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture helped the Food Bank of South Jersey this year by sending more food but did not provide additional financial support needed to pay for staff, truck deliveries and fuel. The Food Bank delivers about half of the food going to pantries.

“We try to never say no to food, even if it means putting us at financial risk,” Traore said. . . . I’m not sure how we tell needy people that food is out there but we can’t afford to get it here to South Jersey.”

Last month, the Christie administration announced it had distributed $147,000 in federal block grant funds to five major New Jersey food banks. About $20,000 of it was directed to the Food Bank of South Jersey.

This month, a Delaware River Port Authority panel is mulling competing demands for $29 million in unspent economic-development funds, including the needs of food banks that hope to secure about $2 million.

Those funds were approved by a DRPA board in December 2009 for food banks, which proposed dividing it up among the Food Bank of South Jersey, Community FoodBank of New Jersey, and Philabundance. Those organizations provide millions of meals each year though food kitchens, senior centers, food cupboards and other agencies.

In the meantime, Traore said the Food Bank has been “reaching out to the public and big companies to run food drives for us.

“There’s food in the country; it’s just not sitting in South Jersey,” she said. “When people make a financial contribution, we can use it to bring food in from other places and buy food.”

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