Food banks hit by supply shortage

For many of New Haven’s homeless and poor, chicken dinner at soup kitchens every night is a sign of bad times.

A shortage in food-bank supplies, which has resulted in scantier offerings for the poor and hungry nationwide, has hit home locally, New Haven hunger advocates said. As Congress debates a farm bill that experts say has the potential to increase access to food stamps and surplus food, local advocates said they have been working to cope in continuing to feed Elm City residents in the face of what may develop into a long-term struggle — a problem exacerbated by the current economic downturn and an increase in demand for food.

Connecticut Food Bank volunteers get ready to distribute a truck full of food designated for the Thanksgiving holidays.
Connecticut Food Bank volunteers get ready to distribute a truck full of food designated for the Thanksgiving holidays.

But New Haven and Yale student volunteers, who have faced similar dilemmas in the past, are working to cope with this year’s shortage without making any radical changes.

The local impact of the national food shortage has been direct and immediate, Eliza Schafler ’09, co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, said. She said patrons of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, where she and other Yale students organize the Friday dinner with leftovers from Commons, have noticed the limited supplies of fresh food.

“When the quality of food goes down, people are very sensitive to it,” Schafler said. “The guests complain about chicken all the time — because whenever times are bad, it’s chicken 24/7, and vegetables that are not fresh, [which] can last longer.”

Earlier this year, the Connecticut Food Bank — which serves 650 food-aid organizations in six of the state’s eight counties — reduced the number of weekly shopping visits it allows DESK from two to one, Schafler said.

Julie Rio, development director for the state’s food bank, said the current crisis is more urgent than previous shortages because it affects the entire nation.

“It’s not just one section of the country or one particular food bank that’s feeling the effects,” she said. “It’s everybody, and that’s what makes us all worried.”

According to a 2006 study by America’s Second Harvest — which distributes 2 billion pounds of food to over 200 food banks in the United States and Puerto Rico annually — Connecticut Food Bank serves an average of 30,800 people each week. Rio said the impact of the national food shortage at this local level is frightening.

Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center, a nonprofit bipartisan organization that funds training initiatives against hunger, said there are three main sources of food and funds for food banks nationwide: the private sector, the federal government and bonus commodities, or the leftover crops produced by farmers that are beyond market demand. Reductions in all three areas have led to empty shelves in food banks across the country, he said.

As private food production companies have become more efficient over the past few years in packaging and distribution, there has also been a decrease in surplus crops. The combination of these factors has resulted in less excess that can be donated to hunger aid groups, he said.

Ross Fraser, spokesman for America’s Second Harvest, said the effects of these phenomena have become more stark in the current weak economic climate.

“[Food pantries] see new faces showing up for food,” Fraser said. “We can only assume it’s for reasons like increased cost of gas, fuel, increased cost of living … A lot of states are just in catastrophic condition. Some of the food pantries have so little food that they’ve just closed down.”

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Food Bank is only one of many food banks across the country that have had to start rationing their supplies.

Cooney said a partial solution to the problem may lie in increasing the benefits of the federal Food Stamp Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program. TEFAP distributes commodities to supplement local food-provider programs, while the Food Stamp Program provides low-income individuals with a budget to purchase food.

The version of the Farm Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on July 27 contains a provision that would incrementally invest $606 million in TEFAP over the next five years, augmenting the annual $140 million currently provided.

The Farm Bill is currently being considered by the Senate.

“It’s a question of national priorities,” Cooney said. “There are a lot of people in the Food Stamp Program, and that costs a lot of money … but I still think it’s inadequate when you have over 30 million people who are, at certain points of the month, hungry.”

But Schafler said a focus on local problems and approaches is just as important as national economic and political conditions.

“As much as you have to be aware of the big picture in order to stay alive, local issues are extremely important to organizations like the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen because their backup comes from the community … especially in tough times,” she said. “They rely on community grants and community benefactors to give them the money they need in order to survive.”

Yale students often neglect their potential to spark positive change, YHHAP member Liz Calle ’08 said.

Calle coordinates Bringing Relief Every Day (BRED), which collects leftover bread and desserts from campus dining halls and delivers them to halfway houses in New Haven.

“If you have the privilege to be taken care of, I think it’s a moral responsibility to take care of those who have less than you,” she said. “Beyond just morality, it’s efficiency. We’re using resources, [which] would otherwise be wasted, [for] good use.”

YHHAP members said Yale students have previously stepped up their efforts in times of local crisis to help maintain services.

In spring 2005, DESK suspended its Friday and Saturday meal services because of financial and human resource constraints, according to the DESK Web site. To compensate, YHHAP partnered with the kitchen to bring back Friday meals — complements of Yale students and dining halls, Schafler said.

YHHAP members said they do not have any special plans to address this season’s particular problems. Earlier this month, YHHAP co-sponsored the Yale Food Stamp Challenge, in which participants pledged to eat on only $3 a day for up to a week in order to raise awareness about the Farm Bill.

Schafler said the fallout from a national food shortage is relevant to all Yale students, if only because of their physical geography.

“Yale has a lot of potential to help and change — and because we have so much potential, we should be aware of the changes we should make,” Schafler said. “I think that anyone who has any sort of role in the New Haven community … should be aware of a problem that is affecting New Haven residents.”

Cooney said the problem of hunger is ongoing and efforts to raise grassroots awareness about its impact are crucial for success.

“I think people are catching on to it,” Cooney said. “People don’t seem to pay attention to this issue of hunger unless it’s between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but people are hungry the other 10 months of the year.”

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