Demand for Donated Food Outstrips Supply

By Edward Colimore
Inquirer Staff Writer
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Need is up, and the supply isn’t nearly enough.

This Thanksgiving, thousands of turkeys were distributed by hunger-relief agencies to needy families, food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens across the region.

But tens of thousands of people – many seeking help for the first time because of job losses and salary cuts – were likely to go without the traditional holiday meal and its trimmings, officials said.

“There will be a lot of tables without turkeys,” said Val Traore, chief executive officer of the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties.

“We will distribute 16,000 turkeys, but we need 40,000 to 50,000,” Traore said Tuesday. Last Thanksgiving, the food bank provided about 20,000 turkeys; demand was for at least 30,000.

Philabundance in South Philadelphia will provide 9,000 turkeys, but it won’t meet all of its requests – not by a long shot.

The agency provides food to 65,000 people a week and the number jumps at Thanksgiving. Turkeys have disappeared quickly.

“There is never enough to meet the need,” said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, which covers the same counties as the Food Bank of South Jersey plus Philadelphia and its suburbs.

“No matter how many turkeys we have, we won’t have any left in the freezer come Saturday,” he said.

Lots of people, especially those in need for the first time, “don’t even know where to get help,” said Marlo DelSordo, a Philabundance spokeswoman.

“Many turn to churches, but folks who are not faith-oriented don’t know where to go,” she said.

The rising need was expected because of the faltering economy, unemployment, and high gas and utility prices. But the magnitude caught agencies off guard.

“We’ve distributed 42 percent more food this year,” Traore said. “We predicted an increase of 5 to 10 percent.

“Right now we have a two- to three-month supply of food, and that’s critically low for us,” she said. “We normally maintain a six-month supply.”

The food bank’s Thanksgiving turkeys were delivered to 240 pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. The pantries handed out birds to families; shelters and soup kitchens prepare individual meals.

“The difference this year is that there are 70,000 extra people we have to provide some level of food,” Traore said.

The food bank’s parent organization, Feeding America, recently released a Map the Meal to Hunger study that showed the number of South Jersey residents who seek food assistance had jumped from 100,000 a year to 170,000. About a third are school-age children.

Philabundance has been concerned about future cuts to federal food assistance as Congress seeks ways to trim expenses. Fifteen percent of city residents received food stamps in 2006 and 22 percent now depend on the aid.

“People are holding on by a shoestring,” Clark said.

On Wednesday, Philabundance received a delivery of about 1,200 turkeys from Tons of Turkeys, a West Chester nonprofit that helps the needy at Thanksgiving. It also had received 800 turkeys from ShopRite, 6,000 from Giant, and 1,000 from individual donors.

“As cold temperatures approach, some families are faced with paying their heating bill or paying the grocery bill,” Clark said.

Inadequate government funding is a major problem for the Food Bank of South Jersey, which learned this week from the state Department of Agriculture that fees it receives for storing and distributing farm surplus would be cut from four cents a pound to two cents. That means the agency’s projected shortfall for the year is likely to rise by $70,000, to $370,000.

“That’s not a good way to start your Turkey Day,” Traore said. “We’ll reach out to businesses and individual donors for help and dip into our reserves.

“We can’t take too many hits to our operating reserves, though, or we’ll be out of business,” she said.

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