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Supplies Dwindle at Food Pantries as Financing Bill Stalls in Washington

Source: New York Times article by Winter Miller – 

On a recent weekday at the BedStuy Campaign Against Hunger, one of Brooklyn’s largest food pantries, shelves that are usually piled high with staples like rice and canned meats were empty, a stark illustration of the crisis facing emergency food providers across the city.

The Brooklyn organization is among about 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens supplied by the Food Bank for New York City, the largest distributor of free food in the city, whose mission has been crippled by what officials describe as its worst food shortage in years.

At its sprawling warehouse in Hunts Point, in the Bronx, the Food Bank is storing about half what it housed in recent years. Instead of distributing 5.5 million pounds of food a month to food banks and soup kitchens, the Food Bank now offers 3 million pounds. So rather than having 10 trucks on the road at any given time, there are now only 3 or 4.

“It’s the first time in a few years that I could walk into the warehouse and see empty shelves,” said Lucy Cabrera, the president and chief executive of the Food Bank, which helps feed about 1.3 million people a year.

Officials at the Food Bank say the bare shelves stem from a steady decline in federal emergency food aid, though a farm bill stalled in the United States Senate could increase that aid.

According to a study to be released today by the Food Bank and Cornell University, New York City receives a little more than half the amount of emergency food annually from the federal government that it did three years ago. The shortfall is occurring as the number of families and individuals relying on soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City has risen to 1.3 million from 1 million since 2004.

As a result, food pantry workers say, people in need are getting fewer provisions and less variety, and some pantries have been forced to open less frequently. And the demand for emergency food will most likely rise as families spend more of their incomes on school and holiday expenses, Food Bank officials said.

Rethea Bruno, 63, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and is a regular at several local food pantries, described the supply she found at the Campaign Against Hunger pantry as “pitiful.” “You’re getting less food,” she said. “You get the bags home and you’re stunned.”

The problem besetting the citywide Food Bank is also affecting providers of emergency food nationwide who are supplied by America’s Second Harvest, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, which assists 50,000 providers. Federal food donations to food banks have been stagnant since 2002.

But organizations have been hit hardest by declines in a separate federal program that buys excess crops like peaches and potatoes from farmers and then donates them to food banks. Those donations have shrunk to 89 million pounds last year from 251 million pounds in 2003.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he is optimistic that the farm bill will pass within the next month. He said the delay involved sections of the bill unrelated to the nutrition portion.

Separately, the House of Representatives voted in July to increase the budget for food stamps and other nutrition programs by $4 billion, which would include an increase in emergency food assistance to $250 million from $140 million. It also would require an automatic increase in food assistance based on the rate of inflation, addressing one of the reasons food banks are now struggling.

At the Campaign Against Hunger pantry in Brooklyn, which is usually a hub of activity as visitors catch up with one another on the latest gossip, fewer people are showing up since word got out that the cupboards were running bare. On one day, the middle aisle held 13 cans of corned beef, a single jar of peanut butter and a few hundred cans of spaghetti in sauce. The canned and fresh fruit were gone.

“It’s devastating,” said the Rev. Melony Samuels, a minister at the Full Gospel Tabernacle of Faith who oversees the food pantry. “It has gotten so bad.”

A storage room the pantry uses was filled with mostly empty wooden pallets. “It’s not that we have the stuff and we’re not putting it out,” Ms. Samuels said. “It’s out.”

In better times, the pantry might get 190 cases of assorted foods every week; now the shipments are much smaller. One recent week, all it got was six cases of peanut butter and pasta.

“In order to keep food on our shelves, we need to roll in $5,000 per month easily, and you’re looking at half or less of that coming in,” Ms. Samuels said, adding that she might not be able to stock her pantry with turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Penny Flood, 48, who manages the kitchen at Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen near the Campaign Against Hunger pantry, says she is also getting less food and less variety. In the basement storeroom, Ms. Flood pointed out that the shelves for vegetables were depleted but that those used to store cans of tuna were full.

Ms. Samuels, who has the task of turning away hungry customers from the Campaign Against Hunger pantry, worries that if the shortage continues she may have to close her doors. “If that farm bill does not pass, I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to say to people.”