Growing demand, soaring costs hit hard at food banks in state

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Published: May 5,2008

With gasoline costing on average 68 cents per gallon more than a year ago, and food costs up as a result, organizations like the Mississippi Food Network (MFN) in Mississippi are finding it increasingly difficult to provide food for the needy.

MFN has approximately 320 member agencies throughout the state that operate as food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, group homes and day cares. MFN distributes approximately one million pounds of food and household items a month to approximately 90,000 needy Mississippians.

Demand has steadily grown. Currently, MFN agencies are serving 10,000 more people a month than last year.

“Food prices that have been steadily rising for more than a year have hit Mississippians hard,” said MFN executive director Walker Satterwhite. “The U.S. Labor Department reported last week eggs have gone up 41%, milk 26% and bread 13%, mainly because of rapidly rising transportation costs triggered by the all-time high price of fuel.”

MFN’s cost of doing business has increased due to rising utilities, fuel costs and the increased demand for food. The organization has seen a 30% increase in transportation costs in the past six months.

“Our local donors have been very generous, but the demand has become overwhelming,” Satterwhite said. “Our organization is working on innovative ways to get more food. Through our volume purchasing we are able to buy food below wholesale and can turn $1 into $15 worth of food. The community has been supportive in the past and we hope they will continue to support us so we can work to make a difference in people’s lives. Some of the ways the community can help us are by volunteering their time, donating food, having food drives and making monetary donations.”

People often assume food bank clients are homeless or people without jobs. But MFN is seeing an increase in workers, people who are employed but not making enough to get by.

“People are making sacrifices in order to buy gas and pay rent,” Satterwhite said. “At least 1.3 million more people nationally have enrolled in the federal Food Stamp Program compared to last year.”

At the same time more people need help, food bank donations are down for several reasons. Because of high commodity prices and the weak dollar, farmers are exporting more of their crop.

“Unfortunately in a weak agricultural climate, food banks benefit from bonus USDA product,” Satterwhite said.

Another problem is that government commodity payments through the Farm Bill have declined.

“One of the challenges we are faced with is we are working with getting food from USDA bonus commodities provision, working with prices from the 2002 Farm Bill,” said Shearie Archer, director of development and communications for the Bay Area Food Bank, which serves coastal counties in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. “Food and fuel have gone up significantly since 2002 so we get less for our money. We hope in the next few weeks the 2007 Farm Bill is approved.”

A lack of food processors can be another factor. Food processors often donate items, including items that may be in surplus or with minor damage like dent in cans.

“We are in a food-poor, fund-poor area,” Archer said. “We don’t have a lot of food processors in our 24-county area. Another challenge is the few food processors we have in the area have become more focused on inventory control. That gives us less product. With the world of computers now, we don’t get a lot of overruns and mislabels. There is more accuracy. Grocers are buying just what they need. The hardest commodity to get is canned goods because of inventory controls. We are hurting in getting product in because grocers and manufacturers have become more savvy in the way they produce food. They have to do that to be more competitive in marketplace. “

The Bay Area Food Bank works through a subsidiary called Twelve Baskets, which is part of the Catholic Diocese. It has 80 member agencies — mostly churches — in the eight lower coastal counties of Mississippi. Most of their recipients are employed.

“We don’t have a high unemployment rate in the area, but there are a lot of people who are the working poor,” Archer said. “They don’t qualify for food stamps. They may make a dollar over the qualifying limits for food stamps. That is who we are finding accessing our pantry.”

While food banks across the country are facing a strain of increased demand at a time of inflation for purchasing and distributing food, the need can be particular acute in areas where there is a low per capita income. On the Gulf Coast, that problem is magnified by dramatically higher costs for housing and insurance since Hurricane Katrina.
Archer said the private business sector could help by donating funds.

“We are having to purchase more food because it is not being donated,” Archer said. “We have high purchasing power because we work with a network of food banks. But last month we had to purchase over $100,000 worth of food to supplement what is being donated. If there are manufacturers in the area, we could do pick ups once or twice per week. And we always could use volunteers to do food drives.”

The USDA recently released information about food cost inflation. A family of four paid an average of $197 per week for groceries in February 2007. In February 2008, that went up to $211 per week. USDA says it is the worst food inflation in 20 years. Eggs have gone up from $1.75 per dozen to $2.17. Other staples costing more include ground beef, milk, chicken, apples, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee and orange juice.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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