Weather, economy, industry changes strain area food banks

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff
Philadelphia Inquirer

Extreme weather around the world and high gas prices at home are combining to put a strain on food banks, including Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the area.
Beyond that, changes in the food industry are drying up resources that food banks once used to feed the poor.

All this is happening during a post-recession period of high unemployment, which is keeping the need for charitable food high.

“There’s just this sense of frustration we’re feeling,” said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, which has seen a 30 percent spike in people needing food since last year and more than 60 percent over two years.

Globally, storms, drought, unpredictable temperatures, as well as high volumes of rain in various growing areas have played havoc with crops.

While the vast majority of food banks disperse mostly canned and dry goods to the poor, Philabundance is unusual: About 60 percent of what the agency distributes is produce, agency figures show.

Philabundance, unlike many food banks, has a large capacity to keep produce refrigerated.

Because Philadelphia is a port city, Philabundance has long been able to receive winter produce from South American countries.

But, according to agency research, bad weather caused the continent to experience its least productive growing season in 25 years.

Generally, stores pick the best-quality imported produce to sell, and the rest is donated to places like Philabundance. But when there’s a shortage, stores buy the crop that they would have normally rejected, and the charity market suffers.

The result: Foreign produce to Philabundance was down 66 percent between March of this year and the same time last year, agency records shows.

When produce supplies are down, Philabundance must tap its own reserves and buy food to make up the shortfall.

But bad weather and other problems have raised prices everywhere, Clark said.

Fires around Moscow last year hurt the potato crop in Russia, and Russians are “sucking up large parts of the Canadian potato crop,” he added, driving up prices 35 percent.

Meanwhile, meat consumption in China is rising, causing the Chinese government to import more grain to feed livestock, Clark said. This is placing greater pressure on world markets, driving up wheat prices nearly 40 percent, he added.

Making matters even tougher are $4-per-gallon gasoline prices, which drive up the cost of truck deliveries of food to Philabundance.

The agency is wrestling with all-time high truck-freight charges amounting to 10 cents per pound of delivered food. Typically, a full tractor trailer holds 40,000 pounds of donated food.

Further pain for Philabundance, as well as other food banks, comes from changes in the food-manufacturing industry.

In the past, manufacturers would find themselves with more product than they could sell. The companies would donate the excess to food banks and take a charitable donation.

But over the last few years, a secondary market has developed that pays better than charity: dollar stores and so-called salvage stores that feature dinged cans and foods past their expiration dates, said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, the national hunger-relief charity to which Philabundance and about 200 other food banks belong.

Manufacturers can get 20 cents or more on the dollar by selling their overstock to the secondary market, according to data from food manufacturers.

“Food from salvage has just dried up nationally,” Fraser said.

Locally, the salvage stream has been severely pinched. In 2007, Philabundance received 1.97 million pounds of salvage food. Last year, it got just 130,217 pounds, agency figures show.

“It’s harder and harder to get this food off an industry that no longer has it to give,” Clark said.

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