Philadelphia-area food pantries short of produce

By Alfred Lebrano

Food pantries in the area are running low on fruits and vegetables because of bad weather in the South earlier this year and the Chilean earthquake.

The amount of produce at pantries supplied by Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief agency, is down 45 percent compared with last year, said Bill Clark, the agency’s executive director.

At the Food Bank of South Jersey, there has been a 70 percent drop in fresh produce because of bad weather in the South, said Joe Njoroge, the agency’s chief operating officer.

Things won’t improve for at least three months, until local farmers are able to harvest produce, Clark said.

“Oh, boy, it’s ridiculous,” said Barbara Andel, 62, a disabled Northeast Philadelphia woman who lives with her 19-year-old daughter and must rely on the Feast of Justice food bank in Mayfair to survive.

“There are hardly any fruits and vegetables, only potatoes. How much can you eat potatoes? Maybe someone should say something.”

The shortage will be severely felt by many of the 65,000 people Philabundance serves per week, as well as the 11,900 people a week given food by the Food Bank of South Jersey, agency officials said. “The economy has not recovered for the people we are serving,” Clark said. “And my inability to provide them produce is injury on top of injury.”

Winter storms and low temperatures played havoc with many crops from Florida and Georgia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported.

For example, around 60 percent of the Florida tomato crop was destroyed, causing a 54 percent price increase, the USDA reported.

In addition, Clark said, cold weather and storms in the South increased the prices of onions, up 160 percent; cabbage, 90 percent; carrots, 60 percent; and sweet potatoes, 40 percent.

The Chilean earthquake severely damaged the grape crop, said James Borys, produce-program manager for Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, which provides food for 37 million people through networks of agencies, including Philabundance.

Philadelphia is a major grape port, with about $1 billion of the fruit arriving from Chile, Borys said.

The earthquake on Feb. 27 interrupted electrical service, which had been used to refrigerate the fruit. And many shipping ports were destroyed by the temblor. As a result, much of the fruit never got to market, Borys said.

The produce that Philabundance disburses among its food banks in the Delaware Valley is typically donated by fruit and vegetable growers, distributors, and wholesalers.

With prices so high, the companies that ordinarily donate can’t afford to now, causing the shortage, said Marlo DelSordo, spokeswoman for the agency.

One alternative is for Philabundance and the Food Bank of South Jersey to use whatever cash they have to buy produce.

The problem is that “some products are now at four-star restaurant prices,” making purchasing difficult if not impossible for the agencies, DelSordo said.

Exacerbating matters is a 10 to 15 percent increase in fuel prices, adding to the cost of shipping produce, Clark said.

At the Touch New Jersey Food Pantry in Mount Ephraim, director Debbie Realey said, “People are very disappointed. We have to be very stingy with the produce we’re giving families now.

“Normally, they walk away with two bags of produce weighing a total of 20 pounds. Now, I’m giving out just seven pounds of produce.”

As client Edward Gamble, 78, of Bellmawr, put it, “I’m not happy about it. Who doesn’t like tomatoes and carrots?”

Around 65 percent of all food that Philabundance gives out is produce, reflecting the group’s priority on fresh food, Clark said.

“That’s not common,” said Mick Blawat, a vice president of Feeding America. “Most food banks don’t focus on fresh produce.”

DelSordo said Philabundance’s core philosophy was to provide as much fresh food as possible. She said Philadelphia’s large produce port ordinarily allowed the agency to sustain that commitment.

The produce shortage is not felt equally across the country. Other areas did not have the same bad weather as Southeastern growers, upon whom Philabundance depends, Blawat said.

In fact, Philabundance has ample supplies of potatoes, which grow in various areas of the country. Similarly, there is no shortage of bananas from Central America, Clark said.

But, he added: “If I show up [in pantries] with bananas and potatoes three weeks in a row, people will get very upset very quickly.”

Donate to the Philabundance Food Fund to help us purchase fresh fruits and veggies.

View this article on the Inquirer website.

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