Rising Food Prices Strain Aid Groups Around U.S.

Volunteer hands out canned food at Project Share

hide captionA volunteer hands out canned food to one of hundreds of people who come to the Project SHARE food pantry each month in Carlisle, Pa.

Pam Fessler for NPR

Among lower-paid working families, food prices are making trips to the grocery store more difficult — leading many to seek staples from local food banks. Rising demand for food is squeezing aid groups in many areas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some Pennsylvania voters had a more immediate concern than just voting: finding dinner. Across the country, including Pennsylvania, food banks are facing growing demands are prices rise and many Americans are unable to make ends meet. Some aid groups are trying to ease this pressure by encouraging more families to apply for food stamps.

NPR's Pam Fessler visited a food pantry in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of ripping)

PAM FESSLER: Volunteers rip open cartons of carrots, potatoes and fresh produce at a warehouse in a rural area west of Harrisburg. They're getting ready for the once-a-month food distribution at Project S.H.A.R.E. The mood here is upbeat. This pantry hands out encouragement along with food. But Executive Director Elaine Livas has some sobering news for the volunteers.

Ms. ELAINE LIVAS (Executive Director, Project S.H.A.R.E.): Everybody come on out for a minute.

FESSLER: Livas reminds those gathered that food banks all over are facing hard times, and only a limited amount of supplies can be distributed to those waiting outside. She says baby food especially is in short supply.

Ms. LIVAS: So, we give out one can of formula to each family going through instead of three. And when that happens, what people do is they water down the formula they give out to their baby.

(Soundbite of people at Project SHARE)

Unidentified Woman (Clerk): Oh, it's good to see you neighbor.

FESSLER: The number of families coming to Project Share is up 43 percent since 2005, about 1000 families a month. Today a steady stream of people enters the warehouse. Each person gets a shopping cart to roll from station to station to receive food from the volunteers.

(Soundbite of people shopping)

Unidentified Woman (Clerk): Apricots? You get a choice.

FESSLER: There are middle-aged men and elderly women here, but also lots of young couples, most with babies and toddlers in tow.

(Soundbite of people shopping)

Unidentified Woman (Clerk): And I have the spaghetti sauce to go with your pasta.

Unidentified Man (Project SHARE client): All right.

Unidentified Woman (Clerk): How are you guys?

Unidentified Man (Project SHARE client): Good, how are you doing?

Unidentified Woman (Clerk): Good. And tuna?

Unidentified Man (Project SHARE client): Yes, please.

FESSLER: Many who come here have jobs, but they can't keep up with the rising costs. Lisa Apante(ph) and her husband have four children to feed.

Ms. LISA APANTE (mother and Project SHARE client): Everything has gone up and then just gas alone to get to the grocery store and getting to work, that's taking a big chunk of our budget. And certain things that you get here that you know you're going to get every month helps because then you say, okay, well, I don't have to buy that at the grocery store today.

FESSLER: She used to come here a couple times a year. Now it's almost every month.

Ms. CHRISTINA MENZER(ph) (mother and Project SHARE client): Bradley.

FESSLER: Nearby Christina Menzer tries to keep her six-year-old from wondering off. She's here despite making $10.90 an hour.

Ms. MENZER: I'm a single mom, so I'm like the only one buying groceries. Half the time we don't - we struggle for money to get food because we can't afford it 'cause of all our bills, but…

FESSLER: Menzer says she applied for food stamps, but was told with child support she made too much. Many here don't get food stamps, even though they do qualify, and it's a national problem. Twenty-eight million Americans are expected to receive food stamps this coming year, but millions more are eligible. Often the process is too daunting, so just off the warehouse floor, Laura Tobin of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center is trying to help.

Ms. LAURA TOBIN (Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center): And do you share any of your household expenses with anyone like a roommate or sub-lease?

Mrs. SHIRLEY SIMS (Project SHARE client): No, just him and I.

Mr. DONALD SIMS (Project SHARE client): No.

Ms. TOBIN: Okay.

Mrs. SIMS: We're on our own.

FESSLER: Tobin is using a laptop computer to fill out an online food stamp application for Donald and Shirley Sims. They had fallen on especially hard times. Donald lost his truck driving job last month. His wife has a string of medical problems, a stroke, blindness in one eye, high blood pressure, but no insurance.

Mr. SIMS: She's got stents in heart. She's got - she had both of side of her neck got replacement veins and they've got to do her stomach yet.

Mrs. SIMS: I don't want another…

FESSLER: Tobin tells the Sims that she'll follow up with a caseworker in a few days. Later she says many people are under the mistaken impression that they can't get food stamps if they own a car or a home.

Ms. TOBIN: A lot of people don't know that their eligible or a lot of people are - I'm not quite sure how to say it, but there's a lot of stigma attached to going into the county systems office, unfortunately.

FESSLER: Even so, about 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, about one in 11 received food stamps last month. Food advocates say that assistance doesn't go as far as used to. Project Share board member John Frileno(ph) says like other pantries, they're looking at more long term solutions.

Mr. JOHN FRILENO (Project Share Board Member): Nutrition among the poor is very bad, and so we have education programs here that will teach little kids how to start cooking, that there is good food that isn't just sugar.

FESSLER: They also recently set up a farm stand to encourage more fresh fruits and vegetables. They expected 30 to 40 families to show up a day, but it's been more like 100.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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