Food Banks See Drop In Donations

Nearly 50 Americans million now live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Many food banks are not only reporting an increase in the number of people they're serving, but also a drop in food and cash donations — as much as 30 percent in some areas. Guest host Allison Keyes talks with two people working on the front lines of hunger relief.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, having to tackle the emotional and psychological toll of being transgendered is difficult. This is especially true for adolescents. We'll talk with a doctor who specializes in treating transgendered adolescents about a controversial medication that halts puberty. That's in just a few minutes. But first, feeding America's poor during the holidays. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 50 million Americans are now living below the poverty line.

And some food banks across the nation are reporting a sizeable drop in food and cash donations just as the need as growing. Here to talk more about how food banks are managing this are Amy Besunder. She's executive director of North Helpline Emergency Services and Food Bank. It's based in Seattle. Also with us is Ross Fraser. He's the spokesperson for Feeding America, which is one of the nation's largest hunger relief charities. Welcome to the program.

AMY BESUNDER: Thank you.

ROSS FRASER: Thank you.

KEYES: Amy, let me start with you. We've been hearing from all over the country that food bank donations are down. How are things looking in Seattle?

BESUNDER: Well, across the board food banks in Seattle are reporting a 30 percent decrease in both cash and food donations, while reporting increases in client need. Personally, at the North Helpline we've seen over a 50 percent increase in client base over the last two years and some of the people who used to be donors or provide food to us on a regular basis are now coming to us as clients.

KEYES: Whatever different kind of people are you seeing this year? I saw a number somewhere that said that more people are employed that are coming for food help this year than are homeless?

BESUNDER: We are seeing more families coming to us and often there is at least one working parent within those families. However, their employment is tenuous. It may be part-time employment. They may be supporting their spouse as well as children on a single income. And Seattle is quite an expensive city and attempting to support a family on a single income is quite a challenge here.

KEYES: Ross, let me bring you into the conversation. Your Feeding America has more than 200 food bank members nationwide. What are you hearing from them? Are donations dwindling for them as well?

FRASER: Yes. What we are in is what we call a perfect storm. Demand is up. It's up 46 percent in just the last four years. Four years ago, we were feeding 25 million people a year. We are now feeding 37 million people a year. The good news is we have found more food. We were moving two billion pounds of food and that's billion with a B. Now, we are providing more than three billion pounds of food a year. But it's not enough, and I will tell you many of our food banks, as Amy just referenced, will tell you that they're operating in disaster mode.

So many people who are unemployed or underemployed just cannot make ends meet and have to show up for a bag of groceries or their family won't eat.

KEYES: I'm wondering Ross if there is a particular group of people who is more impacted by the shortages this year?

FRASER: Absolutely. I put a list together of my top 10 hunger list. And I'll just give you a couple of things: Right now, 1-in-3 Latino children in this country are receiving food from Feeding America; 1-in-4 African-American households is food insecure; 1-in-5 children is food insecure; 1-in-6 Americans are food insecure; and 1-in-7 Americans are receiving food stamps.

So, we know it disproportionately affects African-Americans and Hispanics, and we're looking to change that. We've got to turn that around.

KEYES: Ross, I'm curious. Are you hearing from your members that they're worried about having to turn people away this year?

FRASER: Well, yes. I had a very sad story out of Fort Smith, Arkansas just recently. At Thanksgiving time, they have a hundred turkeys to give away and four hundred people showed up for the turkeys. So they had to make a decision that if you were there representing the family of four or more people, you got a turkey. If you didn't, if you had a smaller family or it was just you, you didn't get a turkey.

BESUNDER: We had to employ a similar system with 850 families coming through our door and so, we had about 400 turkeys and also had to make a choice in terms of family size. And that's a really difficult decision to make. We certainly had a lot of tears and a lot of wringing of hands on the part of our clients who were hoping to provide a holiday meal to their families.

KEYES: Amy, this is 850 people coming through a week?

BESUNDER: That's correct.

KEYES: It can't be easy for the providers to see that either. Ross, I'm curious. Where are your donations coming from this year? Is it the same people that have been giving money annually or is there a different group, because as Amy said some of those who were donors are now clients?

FRASER: Well, I will tell you there is good news, and because we're the national office for most of the food banks in the country, our donor base is a little different. So, but the good news is, is that we have so many corporations now coming forward to help us who were not involved in hunger relief previously, particularly financial institutions. Bank of America recently gave us a million dollars. Other corporate donors have stepped up to the plate.

So, our donations from large donors have increased. Our biggest problem - what has happened to us is that food coming from the federal government through the USDA is a significant chunk of the food that we move.

KEYES: Um-hum.

FRASER: It's food that they got from the agricultural community. So, it's produce, fruits, vegetables, poultry, eggs, milk.

KEYES: In other words it's perishable?

FRASER: Well, it's perishable, but it's high quality food. Two years ago our network received about 704 million dollars worth of food through the USDA. Now, this year, 2011, that is reduced to $467 million. So, we've had to make up for that. So we have to go out and find more food. We have to purchase food, which we didn't do on a large scale five or ten years ago. And having to look for other sources for food.

KEYES: Let me jump in here for a moment and say, if you're just joining us I'm Allison Keyes and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're discussing hunger in America and the challenges some food banks are facing this holiday season. With us is Amy Besunder of the Seattle-based North Helpline Emergency Services and Food Bank, and Ross Fraser of Feeding America, one of the nation's largest hunger relief charities. Amy, you're on the ground in Seattle and I know your organization gets a little bit less than a quarter of its food from Feeding America warehouses.

But what kind of things have you had to do to adjust what you're able to give people that are coming to you for help? Are you having to give them lesser amounts of food? Are you having to give them different kinds of food?

BESUNDER: Unfortunately we have had to reduce the amount of food that we give to each client who comes through our doors. The poundage has decreased by ten pounds of food per individual. So we used to give out an average of 30 pounds of food per week to each of our clients, and now we're giving out about 20 pounds of food per week. And so, clients are really having to stretch the resources that are available to them and many of our clients have reported that there are days where they are experiencing actual hunger.

KEYES: And you've also had to cut back on being able to give people meat, is that right?

BESUNDER: Protein is one of the key items that we our seeing our stream dwindle out on. So, there have been for the first time in the years that I have been at the food bank we have operated a food bank without having the option to offer meat to clients. And that happened in October and it was quite an alarming experience to open the food bank and have to tell people that we weren't going to be able to offer a completely balanced grocery selection that day.

KEYES: I was curious as - your clients don't have any other resources except for the food bank if you're unable to help them with proteins, is that right?

BESUNDER: That's essentially correct. Food banks serve the communities they exist within, and so our clients can't seek out another community for food. They're reliant on us to be able to provide balanced groceries to their families.

KEYES: Ross, I wonder, are you hearing that things are worse in some parts of the country than others from your 200 members? Or is it pretty much all across the board?

FRASER: Yeah. Yes, it is bad across the board. There are particular areas of the country where things are terrible. Things are terrible in Florida, where the real estate market has collapsed. Ohio has lost a lot of businesses; a lot of factories have moved out. Had a heartbreaking conversation with the people in Oklahoma.

Their unemployment is not particularly high but so many people have low wage jobs in Oklahoma. So when you talk about unemployment it gives you a false impression. Oh, things are OK in Oklahoma. Well, they're not if everyone's making the minimum wage or a significant number of people are.

But many of our clients receive SNAP which is, you know, formerly known as food stamps.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

FRASER: SNAP is supplemental and most people - most families' food stamps run out by the middle of the month. So if we can't help them, there is nowhere else for them to turn. When our pantries are bare these families have nowhere else to go. And that's just heartbreaking.

KEYES: And Amy, let me ask you. You're on the ground. Do you need volunteers? Say, people in Seattle could come knock on your door tomorrow. If they don't have cash to give is there something else they could do to help you?

BESUNDER: Absolutely. We utilize over 200 volunteers each week to operate our food bank. It runs the course of sorting food, actually distributing food, delivering food to our homebound and elderly clients. We need help and so we always appreciate our volunteers coming forward and making sure that their neighbors in need are cared for.

KEYES: Ross, let me just ask you one final question. There are some signs that the economy is beginning to recover. Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?

There is a light at the end of the tunnel but it's far away. And I will tell you, for people who are at the low end of the economic system/structure in this country, when the economy gets better, the people at the bottom are always the last people to benefit. So we, you know, unemployment has been about 9 percent for a long, long time. We are looking for more food and we're looking for more money because we know that there is going to be tremendous need for the foreseeable future.

Ross Fraser is a spokesperson for Feeding America, which is one of the nation's largest hunger relief charities. It has more than 200 food bank members nationwide. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And Amy BESUNDER is executive director of North Helpline Emergency Services and Food Bank in Seattle. She joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Thank you both so much.

BESUNDER: Thank you.

Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Coming up, how the struggles of transgender people from substance abuse to depression to suicide left one physician grappling for solutions.

DR. NORMAN SPACK: It was a wasteland. Many of the male-to-females particularly had a very great difficulty in physically being accepted.

KEYES: Dr. Norman Spack talks about treating transgender adolescents with a controversial drug he says helps ease his patients' transition to the opposite sex. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

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