Food banks see drop in donations as need increases

December 26, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES -- In cities from coast to coast, food bank operators are reporting that food and cash donations are down, and the need is up.

In New York, some food pantry shelves are bare, a situation never seen before by 15-year employees. Food donations are off about a million pounds in a city that normally deals with 67 million pounds a year, officials said.

"A lot of people are tapped out this year. There's been a lot of `ask' this year. It's been a hard year," said Carol Schneider of the Food Bank for New York City.

In Chicago and the rest of Cook County, food donations are down 8 percent, officials said. Online cash donations are up but not enough to cover the food shortfall.

In Los Angeles, food donations are down 125 truckloads - or 5 million pounds less than the typical 45 million pounds a year.

Food bank officials such as Darren Hoffman of Los Angeles are pointing to "donor fatigue" or "compassion fatigue" as the likely cause for declining holiday donations, saying that Americans might be exhausted after contributing more than $2 billion to victims of three hurricanes that battered Southern states this year.

"The Gulf Coast donations, that was the right thing to do," Hoffman said as he toured a warehouse that was reporting a 12 percent drop in food donations. "You just don't want people to forget you locally."

A study by Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy found that a third of 186 nonprofit groups surveyed reported a firsthand experience with donor fatigue. Even so, the study said, donor fatigue might be getting too much blame. It noted that some fundraisers said the climate was better now than it was six months ago.

What's indisputable is that more Americans face "heat or eat" dilemmas, choosing between fuel for their homes or food for themselves and their families.

The U.S. Agriculture Department recently reported that 38.2 million people - about 13 percent of the population - lived in households last year where, at some time, they wondered whether they would have sufficient resources to obtain food. That was the highest rate of "food insecurity" since 1998.

Food insecurity rates vary from state to state, but they have been rising in many. In Ohio, food insecurity rates jumped from 2.3 percent in 1999 to 11.4 percent in 2004.

"Almost certainly, the key cause of the worsening of the situation was weakness in the economy for the bottom half of American wage earners," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

This month, a study of 24 cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Sodexho Inc., a food- and facilities-management company, reported a 12 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance.

Kasandra Robinson of Capital Area Food Bank in Washington said relief efforts for last year's Indian Ocean tsunami disaster carried over into early this year, and those first-quarter donations are contributing to donor fatigue. Cash donations are down 54 percent, and food donations are down 4 percent in the nation's capital, she said.

She also said the economy was having an impact.

"People are bracing for high heating bills, and people are being conservative with cash donations until they know what their heating bills are like," Robinson said.

America's Second Harvest of Wisconsin, serving the eastern half of the state, collected more than 900,000 pounds of food for Gulf Coast storm victims this summer, but now the agency is facing a 1.3 million-pound drop in its annual 15 million pounds of food donations, said spokeswoman Gina Styer in Milwaukee.

"We're starting to catch up, and we're rebounding now that everyone in eastern Wisconsin is out of hurricane relief mode," Styer said.

As more people scramble to meet food needs, other demands are eating up available money. In Wisconsin, the number of people who applied for government assistance to pay home heating bills jumped from 99,000 in the 2000 fiscal year to 162,400 in fiscal 2005, according to state officials.

In a counterpoint to the experiences of food banks in many cities, a food depository in southwest Florida is enjoying drastic increases in donations amid news media attention on how the Sunshine State has been pummeled by hurricanes since last year.

"We're ... probably up 50 percent, and we've been up since [last year's hurricane] Charley. It was just starting to die down a little bit when Wilma came through, and that kicked us back up," said Hawley Botchford, executive director of the Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers, Fla.

Maura Daly - spokeswoman for America's Second Harvest, the Nation's Food Bank Network, based in Chicago - said the group wouldn't have a clear picture on donations nationwide until the new year, but the last two months of any year mark a crucial period for food banks. About 40 percent of individual donations are made then.

Daly expressed concern about whether donations would rise to meet the need.

"It's very difficult for us to come out strongly whether donor fatigue is realistic or whether donations are down, but we continue pointing to the increases in demand, and it's higher than it's been in five years," Daly said.

At a Los Angeles food bank, Manuel Zaragoza, 47, was loading his car to stock a pantry operated by his church in East Los Angeles.

A lay volunteer, Zaragoza said he has noticed a 20 percent increase in families coming to a Wednesday evangelical service where food is distributed after worship, he said.

"It's hard to keep up with the gas and insurance," Zaragoza said. "They are trying to keep their families going and keeping a roof over their head. Financially, they've just got enough for rent."

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