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Hungry in America | The Nation

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Hungry in America

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Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

Pantries as a Way of Life

About the Author

Trudy Lieberman
Trudy Lieberman is a contributing edtor to the Columbia Journalism Review (cjr.org), where she blogs.

Also by the Author

Waiting lists for food aid have been growing for years—now almost 15 percent of the nation's elderly don't have enough to eat.

Humana and other insurance industry giants have been fomenting a scare campaign among seniors to keep the industry's wasteful taxpayer subsidy going.

Emergency food is now entrenched in nearly every city and town. It represents a fundamental failure of government to adequately feed its citizens. About 30 percent of the people who visit pantries receive food stamps--a stark indication that even those who do get stamps need more help and that many who need help are not getting them. The pantries' very existence lulls the public and politicians into believing they are the answer. But neither politicians nor anyone with adequate income would care to shop at them.

Food pantries are community supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. But shoppers can't come and go as they please, nor can they always choose the food they want. "Sometimes your heart can run away with your funds, especially when there are children involved," says Roy Lawton, a program director at Panhandle Community Services in western Nebraska. So, he adds, there must be limits. At his agency in Gering, people can come three times a year if they qualify. A family of four can have an income no greater than $23,920. If they have one dollar more, or if they've come too often, pantry workers send them to area churches that have less stringent rules.

The quantity of food people get is almost always restricted in some way. At Bread for the City in Washington, DC, workers simply hand clients a food bag after a computer check verifies that they have visited only once during the month. There's no choice of foods here. Food director Verneice Green explains that it would be "too chaotic" to let people in the back room, where the food is stored. At St. Paul of the Shipwreck in San Francisco, the pantry resembles a child's board game. At each stop along a room lined with shelves, a person can choose a set number of items according to a color code and family size. At the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in Manhattan, director Doreen Wohl wants her pantry to resemble a supermarket so clients feel better about taking handouts. The currency here are points assigned to each item. A four-person family can take ten points' worth of food from each of the protein, vegetable, fruit and dairy sections, while a two-person family is allotted six points. On a busy Wednesday 280 people wheel shopping carts through the aisles, but the shelves are not well-stocked. There was less emergency food from the federal government than Wohl had expected--74,000 pounds less this year from the so-called TEFAP program.

At the pantries, people get hand-me-down food. It comes from supermarkets where it has stayed on the shelf too long or is damaged, or it comes from manufacturers that have produced too much of one item or made some product that didn't sell, like a cereal named Buzz Blasts or a soft drink that's blue. "Blueberry cola looks like windshield washer fluid, but in food banking, you take the good with the bad," says Bernie Beaudreau, director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Castoff food, however, doesn't always make for the most nutritious diets, and arguably contributes to the diet-related health problems prevalent among the population forced to use food pantries. Amtrak has been a big supporter of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in downtown Boston, and many of the 300,000 meals the shelter serves each year revolve around Italian wraps and sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches donated by Amtrak. "It's a struggle to provide a steady, nutritionally balanced diet, because of our reliance on donated food," says a shelter worker. Fresh meat and produce are often scarce at the pantries. Last fall in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Lincoln Action Program had enough ten-pound boxes of hamburger for the 400 to 600 people who were coming every week for food, and one day 300 clients lined up for onions, squash, apples and eggplant. But, says outreach worker Sheryl Haas, "there are weeks when the pickings are really slim."

They will grow slimmer as major changes sweep through the emergency food system. Many of the 216 food banks across the country that supply the pantries have less donated food to give away, particularly canned and boxed products that were once the food banks' staples. "Cereal donations are down 30-40 percent or more," says Frank Finnegan, who heads the St. Louis Area Food Bank. Mike Gillespie, who manages the warehouse for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC, used to get a call once a month from Giant Food to pick up excess products, but now, he says, Giant hasn't called in months. In 2000 Giant gave the food bank about 2.5 million pounds of food. Last year its donation fell to 1.6 million pounds.

Ironically, food banks have caused supermarkets, manufacturers and restaurants to become aware of how much food they were giving away. With the help of scanning technology and just-in-time inventory systems, businesses changed their practices. At the same time, more outlets such as Super Wal-Marts, dollar stores and flea markets have sprung up where manufacturers can sell their products. Although they get tax breaks for donating, food companies would rather sell than donate.

The only bright spot is that more produce is available because food-bank managers have aggressively sought donations of fruit and vegetables, and major donors have given money so perishables can be shipped quickly around the country. Yet many pantries don't have adequate refrigeration, or they are staffed with elderly volunteers who can't lug around 100-pound bags of onions and potatoes.

Some food companies have embraced "cause marketing," a new kind of charity that ties a firm's brand with a warm, fuzzy cause like hunger. "It's doing well for the company and doing good at the same time," explains Carol Cone, CEO of Cone Communications in Boston. But cause marketing hardly begins to solve the needs of hungry people. With Cone's help, the giant ConAgra Foods supports some of the 900 Kids' Cafes around the country--including one of the twenty-eight in Washington, DC, that serve 1,200 kids out of 43,000 children who are eligible. Other individuals and groups try to fill in the gaps. Last year Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin raised $1 million to pay for 680,000 meals during the summer, a time when supplies at food pantries run low and school breakfasts and lunches are not available. But when the money ran out, the meals stopped.

Underlying the premise of food banks was the notion that someday they would not be needed and would disappear. Instead, food banking has become big business. Pantries have proliferated, there are jobs to protect, salaries to pay, an infrastructure to maintain. Perhaps as a result, there's a split among food-bank leaders, with some believing they should advocate for government solutions to the fundamental problems of poverty and others believing that rounding up more donations is the answer. Some food-bank boards of directors are fearful of direct advocacy. "We've chosen not to get involved politically," says Finnegan. But, he says, "private industry is not going to be able to solve this problem. If it's anyone's responsibility, it's the government's."

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