Daily Press (Virginia), July 24 , 2008: Donations drop, but need rises at food banks

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July 24, 2008

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Economic woes are starving food banks in Hampton Roads and across Virginia as more needy families seek help and fewer donors give canned goods and cash.

Loretta Jones leads development for the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula, which serves hungry people from the southern tip of Newport News to Gloucester, James City and Mathews counties. Jones said local charities had been fighting against a strong tide of need since early this year.

“Each day, our phone is ringing off the hook,” Jones said. “We haven’t seen such a drastic increase since (Hurricane) Isabel” in 2003. Ripples from the gas price explosion are creeping into all aspects of charitable donations, Jones said. She noted that 18 months ago, the Peninsula food bank could spend $850 to buy a 52-foot semi-trailer full of assorted canned goods. “Now it’s costing us $2,200 for that same delivery,” she said.

On the Peninsula, hungry families picked up 9.5 million pounds of food in the past year — 1 million pounds more than the previous year. In South Hampton Roads, food banks served 47,000 more people in the past year — a 23 percent increase from the year before.

The increased demand at local food banks and decrease in donations highlight the economic struggles throughout the nation. Gas prices are breaking records almost daily, and the high cost of fueling up trucks is driving up the cost of everything, most notably groceries. The housing market continues to trigger waves of foreclosures, causing banks and other lenders to become wary of making new loans.

All those factors add up to a brutal economy. The surge of prices on necessities like gas and groceries is emptying the wallets of elderly residents on fixed incomes and families near the poverty line who were just barely scraping by.

Meanwhile, people who used to be able to make cash donations or spare some extra canned goods are tightening their purse strings.

Food banks across the state and around the country are seeing more people than ever, said Leslie Van Horn, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who have donated in the past coming in for assistance,” Van Horn said. “The numbers are continuing to climb.”

She said it was important to clear up a misconception about food banks: Many people mistakenly think that the pantry shelves serve the homeless almost exclusively, but homeless people make up less than 8 percent of those seeking help.

“It’s really the working poor, children and the elderly,” she said.

The Peninsula food bank serves about 5,000 meals to kids every month. Jones said staffers and volunteers tried to get fresh produce and nourishing meals for youngsters because unhealthy food was usually the cheapest.

“Schoolteachers will tell you that they see kids who don’t eat on the weekend,” Jones said. “They come in on Mondays malnourished.” Meanwhile, the number of senior citizens seeking help has jumped significantly in South Hampton Roads, according to Marianne Smith, chief development officer for food banks in southeastern Virginia.

“Their retirements just aren’t enough anymore,” Smith said. “There are no other funds.” Van Horn said there were no solid statewide numbers yet because the economic climate was rapidly changing. But the lull in donations and rise in need are forcing volunteers and organizers at the state’s 2,800 food banks and pantries to use innovative techniques to feed the hungry, she said. “We’re definitely trying to be creative.”

The uptick in need has hit hard at the cluster of food banks that stretches from Virginia Beach to Sussex County, a string of cities and counties that have a combined population of about 1.2 million.

Last year, the banks served about 203,000 people, Smith said. This year, they’ve served 250,000.

Smith said that meant about one of every five people in the region had had to rely on food banks in the past year. She said many people had to overcome their pride to ask for help.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t aware that a food bank is there in the first place,” Smith said.

“They need to raise their voice and let us know they need our help.”

With no sure economic rebound in sight, Smith cautioned that winter weather could make the need even more dire. “Times are most likely going to get worse,” Smith said. “With heating bills, need tends to skyrocket.”

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