Hunger by another, official name still hurts

Food banks struggle with rising needs, declining U.S. support

November 23, 2006|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. -- Bob Randels, Rose Miller and Teresa Osborne spend most of their waking hours rescuing food.

They're not dumpster divers, but they are relentless in their pursuit of pizzas that weren't picked up, sub shop bread that wasn't used and even small bags of shrimp from the local Red Lobster that didn't get tossed into a pasta Alfredo.

Their efforts are part of a much larger, organized daily hustle to meet the increasing need to feed the hungry.

"We're trying to keep pace, as much as we can," said Randels, executive director of the Food Bank of South Central Michigan, which served 92,000 people last year, up almost 50 percent from 62,000 in 2001.

"Only a handful of people out there believe that we are the long-term answer to the hunger problem," said Randels.

Food insecurity

But near the end of every month, when food stamps are gone, pantries are the most visible and accessible answer for many of the estimated 35 million Americans the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as "food insecure."

A recent USDA report omitted the word "hunger" in its assessment of hunger in America. In job-bleeding Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation - 6.9 percent in October - the agency's semantic sleight of hand is likened to politicians who call tax increases revenue enhancers.

"That's a bunch of malarkey," said Archie MacGregor, coordinator of a small basement food pantry on the east side of Battle Creek.

MacGregor is always complaining about the lack of peanut butter. Meat is scarce, he said. And applesauce is sometimes used as a substitute for vegetables in the food bags that his pantry hands out to 1,000 to 1,200 people every month.

One of them was Jaime Romero, a 28-year-old waitress and mother of three who walked out of the pantry Tuesday with several bags of food, including baby supplies for her 2-year-old.

Romero is jobless. She and her husband moved out of their rented home because it was infested with mice and are living in a motel.

"I only came because I absolutely needed it and I just lost my job," Romero said. "I don't believe in coming every month because other people need it more."

Thanksgiving, like Christmas, tends to produce an outpouring of private and corporate donations as people, for one reason or another, become more mindful of the needy.

On Tuesday, for instance, 320 skids of cereal were dropped off - without advance notice - in the parking lot at Randels' Battle Creek warehouse. That's enough cereal to fill 14 semitrailer trucks.

Challenge increases

For most of the remainder of the year, though, the patchwork collection of pantries, warehouses and faith-based groups scramble to try to fill the holes in a tattered state and national safety net. Recent developments, combined with a spotty economy, have increased the challenge.

Federal government food assistance, in the form of commodities such as milk products and canned goods, is down about 55 percent since 2001.

The Battle Creek food bank, which serves an eight-county region in southern Michigan, received 629,000 pounds of food from the USDA last year, 15 percent less than in the previous year, said Miller, who is director of agency relations.

Pantries in some states, including Michigan and Ohio, report that some food manufacturers are selling goods to secondary merchants such as Dollar General or Odd Lots rather than donating to pantries.

And some supermarkets, in cost-cutting moves, are eliminating so-called reclamation centers, which had served as distribution centers for goods that had previously gone to pantries.

These developments coincide with a steady increase in demand for food, some of which can be seen in a sharp spike in federal food stamp use since 2000.

In Ohio and Michigan, which have lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs since the late 1990s, food stamp use is up 65 percent and 74 percent, respectively, from 2000 to 2005, according to the USDA.

More job losses

A report last week from the University of Michigan forecast two more years of job losses in the state, which would be the longest stretch of employment losses in the state since the Great Depression. Most of that is the result of restructuring in the auto industry.

"We're seeing more plant closures, and the food stamps aren't lasting. That's why we're seeing more people," said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks.

In Battle Creek, the self-described "Cereal City," food bank officials have established close working relationships with Kellogg Co. and Kraft Foods' Post Division, which have helped keep a 30,000-square-foot warehouse well-stocked - with breakfast cereal.

The continuing challenge is to obtain meat, tuna fish, peanut butter and household items. The officials supplement corporate and private donations with leftover food from restaurants, including Pizza Hut, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and local submarine sandwich shops.

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