Struggling Food Banks Find New Ways To Fight Hunger

Food banks are struggling to provide dwindling supplies to a bigger base of recipients. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks with Bloomberg Businessweek contributor Roben Farzad about how food banks are coming up with new ways to feed the hungry.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, civil rights leader Medgar Evers risked his life to help end segregation and integrate the University of Mississippi. We'll take a look at some poems that highlight both his life and death. It's called "Turn Me Loose." That's in just a few minutes. But first, as the end of the year approaches, many food banks are lacking essential needs and supplies.

Donations are down in many places. And recent cuts to the federal food stamp program mean $5 billion less for hungry families. Fifty million people in America suffer from food insecurity. That's 1 out of every 6 of the U.S. population. So food banks are searching for new ways to bring in donations and get people to help - and get help to people in need. Joining us to tell more - tell us more, is Roben Farzad, contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. Welcome back, Roben, as always.

ROBEN FARZAD: Thank you, Celeste. How are you?

HEADLEE: I'm doing well. Thanks. And you?

FARZAD: I'm swell. Thank you.

HEADLEE: But what we're talking about here is those who are not swell.

FARZAD: That's right.

HEADLEE: And I was interested in food banks that are going well beyond just distributing boxes of canned goods. I mean, food banks are much more than just literally food banks now.

FARZAD: Yeah, there are - the entire spectrum of services that help provision food and supplies to the poor, especially the really weak and vulnerable poor. You talk about single mothers with newborn babies or battered woman at a time when food prices are up, when benefits are being cut. These are very fragile members of society and almost like an indicator species. Even when the economy is picking up, this constituency will lag and are really disproportionately dependent on government cuts.

And so right now you have a stat that after the cuts, you're going to have about a buck forty to spend on each meal. And so how do you stretch that budget? Increasingly, people are going to food banks. And in turn, the food banks are saying, well, we don't have enough to give them, so we have to become innovative.

HEADLEE: Well, partly because of the recession has made, for many food banks, a dip in donations. And these cuts to SNAP - that's the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - also means that there's a lot of kids that don't have subsidized school meals anymore. So how are food banks sort of bridging this gap between the increase in need and the reduction in funding?

FARZAD: Well, let's go first to the stats. September actually - the good news is - saw the first year-over-year decline in food stamp usage in almost seven years. Now seven years - that's before, really, the worst of the recession...

HEADLEE: Right.

FARZAD: ...And the fact that it's only arresting its fall, you know, increase in food stamp rolls now tells you that this is kind of an indicator of an especially sensitive part of the economy. But at the same time, 47 million Americans - that's 15 percent of the country - are on food stamps. And that's versus 26 million before the recession. All sorts of other metrics have since hit pre-recessionary levels in terms of certain rates of unemployment in certain states. The stock market, which we've talked about, has hit an all-time high. Real estate is resurgent in certain markets. And yet, when there's a confluence of the government cutting back benefits and allowing a very important boost that was enacted in the worst of the recession to expire in November, suddenly people are coming to food banks.

And there's one that I work with here in Virginia called Hilliard House, which was brought to my attention by an investment banker who was not given to these causes beforehand. But they reached out to him and said, why don't you bring your family to help us feed our mothers and their children and see the kinds of questions that your daughter will ask you? And it truly transformed him. He's now devoting his life to this. That's one tactic to kind of bring in people in the community. Make it an educational experience. Make it something holistic for the family, a kind of a teachable moment where your daughter doesn't have to watch an "Afterschool Special" to realize these things are going on.

And I have to tell you, Celeste, it was striking for me. I met this source at a bar to talk about, you know, banal Wall Street-type story ideas for the next year. And he started weeping when he talked about the return on investment, how he saw 3 and 4 and 5-year-old kids who could really be rescued if somebody intervened, if somebody fed them, if somebody made sure that they were clothed, that they had a good change of underwear and that they didn't have to go to school or preschool hungry. These are things that we take for granted. You always assume in this country that the government has your back, that there's a safety net. But when there's the slightest pullback, even in benefits, suddenly all sorts of people are increasingly desperate.

HEADLEE: What is the disconnect here, though, Roben? With unemployment going down - and we just got another very good unemployment report today - and with employment on the rise, with all, as you say, other indicators going up, why is - food banks still so strapped?

FARZAD: A couple of things. You mention that giving is still lagging. I mean, people have not come around to feeling flush enough to go out and wholeheartedly give to charities. Food prices have soared. You see that gas prices are up again, soybean oil. There's shortages of certain things in markets, and it's harder to do more with less if you're a food bank or if you're a shelter for abused women, for example. And on top of that, we see a stat that's really eye-opening.

Actually, 43 percent of food stamp recipients are employed. More and more people are showing up to these facilities and saying that, you know, I was trying to forestall the day that I'd have to show up hat in hand, especially with my children. It's kind of heartbreaking. But when something as small happens as a temporary boost lapses from the 2009 Recovery Act and a family of four is hit by about $36 a month in increased, out-of-pocket payments for food, they are that sensitive. They are that delicate that they have to then show up at a food bank.

HEADLEE: I mean, in other words, they - there was an increase in SNAP funds, and that increase expired...

FARZAD: Expired.

HEADLEE: ...Recently, letting - meaning...

FARZAD: People are paycheck to paycheck, even at a time when unemployment is falling. I've said it before, these are the most sensitive - they are the indicator species of the economy 'cause they're the first to get hit. We saw that food stamp numbers started surging seven years ago, I mean, well before Lehman Brothers, well before the worst of the economy. And only now, well after the economy bottomed - and lots of things have gone on in the past two, three years - do we suddenly see the increase in food stamp rolls stop. But this is not to say that human suffering has stopped. In fact, food insecurity, which you mentioned...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

FARZAD: ...Where whether go hungry due to lack of money - that's actually up since 2008.

HEADLEE: Roben Farzad contributed to Bloomberg Businessweek. He was kind enough to join us from Richmond, Virginia. Roben, as always, thank you so much.

FARZAD: Thank you, Celeste.

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