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Food Banks Struggle to Aid the Hungry on Holiday

With many surplus supplies being routed to help hurricane victims, agencies say they will be hard-pressed to fill the needs of local families.

November 20, 2005|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The shelves are almost bare at the Seventh-day Adventist Church food pantry in South-Central Los Angeles.

As Thanksgiving approaches, instead of the 400 bags containing a turkey, canned vegetables, milk and other staples typically handed out for the holiday, the charity will be hard-pressed to find provisions for 100 families -- and most will not get a turkey.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and this is the worst I've seen it," said Margaret Carson, community service director.

It is a lament echoed in food pantries throughout Southern California and the country.

Many agencies have less food on hand this holiday season because donations were diverted to aid Gulf Coast hurricane victims. But they are also being squeezed by a long-term trend of fewer food donations from manufacturers and grocery stores, which have improved production and delivery techniques, leading to fewer surpluses.

Although some food banks are in better shape than others, all face increased demand. New figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that 38 million Americans experience hunger or lack sufficient food to make nutritious meals, an increase of 2 million from 2003. In California, nearly 3 million low-income adults say they struggle to keep food on the table, up 29% from 2001, according to UCLA researchers.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which has seen a 12% decrease in food supplies over the last year, is rationing items such as meat and cereal and picking up the pace of local food drives.

The Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County has half a million fewer pounds of food available this year than last, and the Alameda County Community Food Bank has seen a 34% decrease in food supplies.

Some of the decrease stems from diversions to hurricane victims. The Greater Chicago Food Depository sent 130 tons of its stores and now needs help to fill a new 268,000-square-foot warehouse and learning center. It has 5 million pounds of food in inventory, compared with 6.5 million last year.

No one begrudges the food sent to hurricane survivors, but it has undeniably hurt local supplies, said Michael Flood, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The agency distributes about 45 million pounds each year to community food programs.

For the Los Angeles food bank, the drop in donations represents about 5 million pounds of food -- or about 125 full tractor-trailer loads, Flood said. In earlier years, a charity might receive 10 cases of staples, such as canned fruit or vegetables, but this year the limit is one or two. At another food bank, the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, about 80,000 pounds of canned tuna and beef expected to bolster holiday food boxes was diverted by the Agriculture Department to the Gulf Coast, said food bank director Mark Lowry.

Food supplies were further dented when the partnership sent 100,000 pounds to aid hurricane relief.

Lowry said the organization has about 115 turkeys, and that means fewer turkeys for charities that serve holiday meals.

"There's a church in Huntington Beach that is making 500 food baskets. Another in Costa Mesa with 300 families is asking for turkeys, and with 115, we're going to be far short of being able to supply them," Lowry said.

Jean Daniel, a USDA spokeswoman, said the agency diverted seven truckloads of black-eyed peas, beans and applesauce intended for California food banks to the Gulf Coast. An additional four truckloads of applesauce, sliced apples and diced chicken intended for California schoolchildren were also redirected.

But Daniel said those commodities have been replaced and transported to the state for distribution to food banks and schools. The agency is working with other states where commodities were diverted to ensure supplies are replenished, she said.

America's Second Harvest, a national nonprofit organization that coordinates food-bank donations from major suppliers, such as Con Agra and National Mills, routed more than 1,700 truckloads of food from its national network to the Gulf Coast.

"In California, several areas were reporting donations were down, but nationally it depends on who you talk to," Second Harvest spokeswoman Maura Daly said. "Food banks get a portion of food through our national office but also secure a large portion through local resources."

One of the most serious challenges for food banks is the decline in food salvaged from manufacturers and retailers. Improved technology has meant less is thrown away, such as imperfect produce and items close to their expiration date. In addition, manufacturers are selling more salvage to discount dollar stores and big-box stores such as Wal-Mart.

"In general, Safeway knows exactly how many pallets of milk are needed on each day. There are fewer mistakes, fewer surpluses," said Kim McCoy Wade, co-director of the California Assn. of Food Banks.

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