Here’s a last-minute gift idea that nobody will return: food.
Instead of unearthing exactly the right present for someone who probably doesn’t need it (or even want it), you can use that money to help ease a serious crisis now facing the nation’s food banks. And you don’t have to find a parking space, or know the right size. Food fits all families.
That’s what we’re doing this year, and we were persuaded by some stunning statistics. Over the next few weeks, the nation’s feeding services are facing a shortfall of almost 12 million meals, according to Second Harvest, a national network of more than 200 food banks.
Huge companies like Wal-Mart and Kroger have stepped in, donating millions of pounds of food this week, but individual contributions are still desperately needed. As Vicki Escarra, president of Second Harvest, put it: “The demand for help is unprecedented. Food banks across the country are being forced to give people less, and worse, even turn people away as they run out of food.”
This crisis has many causes, starting with a sharp rise in needy families, 20 percent or more in some places. For these families, fuel costs are staggering, wages are stagnating, homes and health insurance are slipping away.
“The overall picture is that household incomes are kind of stuck,” Lane Kenworthy, a professor at the University of Arizona, told The New York Times. “There’s very little way to increase income, and most people have a very heavy debt load. Any event that increases your costs is really, really troublesome, because you’re already stretched thin.”
But as the demand for food spikes, the supply keeps shrinking. One main reason is the market. When food prices are low, the government supports them by buying up surplus commodities, like potatoes and apples, and then giving the foodstuffs away. But for the past few years, market prices have remained high, so the government buys less food and has less to give to food banks. In 2003, this program doled out $242 million worth of surplus food; last year, the total dropped to $67 million.
Moreover, the private sector has gotten far more efficient, using computers and delivery services to stock shelves with the right products at the right time. That cuts down waste, but it also slashes the number of outdated items donated to feeding services. As Darren Hoffman, a food-bank official in Los Angeles, told the Times: “Efficiency has kind of been the enemy of the food bank.”
Search the Internet for the phrase “food bank” and a dozen horror stories pop up:
Cincinnati, Ohio: Diana Blasingame, who makes $9 an hour as a health aide, has started visiting a food bank to feed her teenage daughter: “Food is so high now, and I have to have gas in my car to do my job, ... Sometimes there just isn’t enough to pay bills and buy food.”
Las Cruces, N.M.: Rebecca Reyes of the Community Action Agency says: “We are normally able to send out a good box of food at 20 to 30 pounds. Right now, we are lucky if we get 10.” While more families need help, fewer are able to donate cash or supplies. “Although they have a donor’s heart, they don’t have the means to do it,” says Reyes.
Mexico, Mo.: The Help Center normally feeds 30 families a month and now serves 80. “Our pantry was almost empty,” says Kaylie White, the director, until the local Girl Scouts started a food drive. “That’s the only thing that saved me.”
Manchester, N.H.: Matthew Whooley, waiting on a food line with his wife and four children, says: “Every week there’s less and less food. It used to be potatoes, meat and bread, and last week we got Doritos and flour. The food is getting shorter, and the lines keep getting longer.”
Washington can help. A new farm bill has passed both houses of Congress that contains badly needed increases for feeding and nutrition programs. But the measure faces a lengthy conference to work out differences, and some provisions – tax increases and crop subsidies – have drawn threats of a presidential veto. So hunger advocates fear a stalemate that could delay the infusion of new funds.
“I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to get a farm bill passed quickly,” Maura Daly of Second Harvest told us.
Meanwhile, families like the Blasingames of Cincinnati and the Whooleys of Manchester could go hungry, right in your own neighborhood. They need your gift this season.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.