Unprecedented drop in donations, surge in demand test anti-hunger groups
It’s a chilly Thursday night in Kensington, and William Heinemann — a recently homeless man whom everyone calls Billy the Kid — has been in line outside St. Michael’s Lutheran Church for more than an hour, waiting for the food pantry to open. “I used to get here later,” he says. But with more first-time clients lining up each week, “they run out of the good stuff.”
It’s a problem not limited to St. Michael’s. Since the start of the recession, the nation’s food supply chain has transformed in sweeping (and, for anti-hunger programs, devastating) ways that have increased efficiency for manufacturers while drastically reducing the availability of donated food for pantries across the city and around the country. Meanwhile, demand has exploded: up 29 percent over last year in the Delaware Valley, part of a 98-percent increase in need over the past three years.
Those converging trends culminated in October with a critical shortage of dry food (that is, nonperishable items) at Philabundance, the region’s largest food bank, which serves hundreds of pantries and kitchens across the city.
“For about three weeks, there was nothing on the [warehouse] floor that hadn’t been ordered already,” says Philabundance executive director Bill Clark. The nonprofit had to tap its reserve fund to buy food, an expensive, unsustainable tactic. And such a crisis “may happen again. It really rang a lot of bells,” Clark says.
Because of the shortage, St. Michael’s pantry closed for a week in October, for the first time in 30 years. A food drive run by a Boy Scout troop from Mayfair eventually saved the day, says Frank Mawson, who runs the pantry. “The 4,000 food items they gave us filled our shelves up pretty good,” Mawson says. That a Boy Scout troop — one that had long since moved out of the neighborhood — was the only thing keeping St. Michael’s scores of clients in canned goods underscores how tenuous the situation has become.
Providers like Mawson are beset by forces beyond their control: climbing gas prices and global weather fluctuations that drive up the cost of food — and, lately, a sudden upheaval of the food bank system as we’ve known it for decades.
“Food banks were created 30 years ago, and the whole premise was, ‘There’s all this extra food. Let’s get that food in the door and put it out there.’ It was all focused on logistics,” says Marlo DelSordo, Philabundance’s director of marketing. Manufacturers would produce more than they needed and send the extra to food banks. But when the recession hit, manufacturers tightened up their margins, meaning fewer direct donations.
That has coincided with a sharp decline in “salvage” donations, dented cans or torn boxes that would once have been donated as write-offs. In the last three to five years, food salvage has been making its way to “secondary markets” — grocery auctions that specialize in cheap, expired food, and increasingly popular dollar stores. DelSordo says that in one year, 4 million pounds of salvage in the Philabundance warehouse dwindled to just 400,000 pounds.
Things became desperate in October because more than half of the food bank’s donations come from individual donors — and almost of all of that is taken in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, what Clark calls the “rainy season.” By October, the surplus from holiday season 2011 was gone.
The Grapevine — Philabundance’s weekly menu of items available to pantries, who “buy” food at deep discounts, usually with state funding — would get posted, “and within hours there was nothing available,” DelSordo says. “In all my time here, that had never happened before.”
The impact at pantries has been predictable. “We’ve reduced the amount that each client can get,” says Rev. Jim Wilkin of Bridesburg United Methodist Church. He also had to restrict eligibility, serving two nearby zip codes instead of six.
Feast of Justice, at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northeast Philly, is also stretching its supply: They gave out 10 percent more food in the fiscal year ended in June, but to 45 percent more households, Rev. Tricia Neale says. They had to buy food to offset the shortfall.
“We’re nowhere near having that [demand] stabilize,” Clark says. “The longer people are stressed in these economic conditions, the closer they are to the point where anything can put them over the edge.”
On a recent evening, that pressure was evident on the faces of first-time visitors to St. Michael’s, where Mawson now packs 75 bags of food a week, up from 55 a few months ago. Every food-pantry novice City Paper spoke with had been laid off from work in the building trades (construction jobs are down by 4 percent from last year in Philly).
Joe Beideman, a plumber, lost his job and home six months ago. “People haven’t got money to even make necessary repairs,” he says; when there’s a plumbing emergency, he sometimes helps for free.
David Figanik, a roofer who was laid off two months ago, is feeling desperate: “I got a 16-year-old and a 9-year-old, and my savings are depleted.” His kids’ mother is unable to work, but her application for Social Security Disability was denied, and her food stamps had lapsed. He had never re-applied. “I wasn’t one for sucking off the system. I was making like $25 an hour. We didn’t need it.”
Kate, a mother of three whose husband lost his job as a contractor, says she gets food stamps; even with coupons, they last only about three weeks.
Then there are people like Heinemann who were barely holding it together before Pennsylvania eliminated General Assistance, the $205 monthly welfare that kept many addicts and people with disabilities off the street. Because of that cut, Heinemann lost his housing; he now camps in a local garden. The pantry (along with friends who let him cook in their kitchens) enables him to get by.
Like Heinemann, Philabundance is scrambling to adapt to a new reality. That’s meant reducing agency deliveries from four to two times per month; putting items on the Grapevine that previously wouldn’t have qualified; and trying to offset the decline in dry food with more fresh or frozen foods. Donations of such goods are actually growing, from programs like Grocers Against Hunger, which deals in nearly expired meat and dairy. But getting those goods to food pantries, which tend not to have freezers or cold trucks at their disposal, is a new and costly challenge. Philabundance is using a $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to equip 22 pantries to accept such donations.
Meanwhile, Philabundance is looking to replenish its food fund — and fast. DelSordo is getting creative, with efforts like a “virtual food drive” and corporate sponsorships for the organization’s Fresh for All locations. They’ve been working with partners to grow more food, and Clark is hoping the Fare & Square nonprofit supermarket, a pilot project in Chester, can be replicated.
Given all that, Clark might even have cause to be optimistic. But there’s a twist — a fiscal cliff-hanger, if you will. A great deal depends on what happens in the next few weeks in Washington, where a new farm bill may or may not include cuts to food stamps. Even a small cut, Clark says, could be disastrous. “All of the food that food banks supply — that could pay for 10 percent of what’s purchased with food stamps. If they cut food stamps by 5 percent, I would have to get a 50 percent increase in poundage.”
All he knows for sure is, with holiday food drives, the shelves are stocked again. “But we don’t know if we’re already eating into January’s and February’s volume to meet December’s need.”