Food banks feel the pinch

Ret Boney

In the mountains of North Carolina, more and different people are finding themselves hungry.

Gas prices, food prices and unemployment all are up, leaving less money at the end of the month to put food on the table.

For agencies feeding the hungry in western North Carolina, that has meant a jump in need of about 18 percent to 20 percent.

Couple the spike in demand with rising costs for purchasing and shipping food, and MANNA FoodBank, which provides enough food for 13,000 meals a day through 331 agencies across 16 counties, is struggling to keep up.

“We started to notice a swell in the need in direct correlation to rises in gas and food prices,” says Joshua Stack, communications and marketing coordinator for MANNA, a member of Feeding America, formerly America’s Second Harvest. “While the need is up, our donations and contributions are not keeping pace.”

And MANNA’s own costs are rising, too.

Over the past two years, fuel costs have jumped 64 percent, says Stack, and the amount the group pays to buy food has more than doubled.

That story is echoed throughout the country, with demand rising an average of 15 percent to 20 percent at Feeding America’s 205 member food banks, which together serve over 25 million people every year.

Some of that jump in need, which has reached 40 percent in many areas, can be attributed to the changing face of the hungry, says Ross Fraser, spokesperson for Feeding America, which serves as the national office, accepting and distributing cash and in-kind contributions to it member food banks.

“Our new fear is that we’re feeding more and more of the working poor,” he says. “It looks like we’ll be feeding the middle class next. There’s no money left over to feed the kids.”

For now, Feeding America’s corporate partners are rising to the challenge, he says, noting that both cash and in-kind donations from businesses to the national office are up.

That’s an important resource for Feeding America, amounting to $12 million in cash and $628 million worth of in-kind donations last year alone.

“One of the unique aspects of our business is we’re a basic-need service,” he says. “Our partners from all channels understand that and work to support us. But we’re also trying to diversify our sources of corporate support.”

But things are not quite as upbeat at MANNA FoodBank, where some long-time corporate sponsors are stepping aside because of the economy.

At the charity’s annual Blue Jean Ball fundraiser in June, for example, some bowed out altogether, while others trimmed their support, says Stack.

And in a primarily rural region with few grocery chains or large industries, he says, it can be hard to find new corporate partners to replace the old.

John Fritchie, MANNA’s director of resource development, says he understands the economy is hitting businesses hard, too.

“Our intention is to be understanding and grateful for whatever they can do in the current year, with the hope that when the economy improves, those sponsorship dollars will return and continue to rise,” he says.

In the meantime, MANNA is trying to come up with creative ways for businesses, beyond writing the “big check.”

Recently, local media outlets having been working to plug the gap by helping MANNA communicate the need to the larger community.

In July, local radio and television stations donated advertising time to promote MANNA’s one-day emergency campaign, which raised 31,000 pounds of food and $41,000 in cash.

“That sort of community outreach will be a focus to make up for the shortfalls we and other food banks are feeling,” says Stack.

And in a close-knit community like western North Carolina, simply telling the story and communicating the need goes a long way.

“This is a unique time economically,” says Stack. “Painting the picture with just the facts has been a potent tool.”

Until the economy turns around, MANNA plans to stay close to all its corporate partners, confident they’ll do what they can, when they can.

“We value every single partnership we have in the community, whether they can give at the current time or not,” says Stack. “Having them support what we do is as important as having them cut us a check.”

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