MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Demand at food banks is incredibly high right now. A recent report by the Department of Agriculture found that one out of every seven households in America is having trouble putting food on the table.
Large food bank networks are keeping up with demand. But as Laurel Morales of member station KNAU explains, times are particularly hard for smaller independent food banks.
LAUREL MORALES: At the Northern Arizona Food Bank in Flagstaff, two women fill large paper bags with bread and fresh vegetables to take home. Volunteer Lisa Arthur ushers them through the receiving process.
Ms. Lisa Arthur (Volunteer, Northern Arizona Food Bank): Those go on the scales, ladies. And if you want a watermelon, you can get a watermelon out of the bin here.
MORALES: Arthur grunts as she picks up a heavy box of canned food for them.
On the other side of the warehouse, a group of high school students work in an assembly line, packing and taping up more boxes.
Kerry Ketchum is executive director of the food bank.
Mr. KERRY KETCHUM (Executive Director, Northern Arizona Food Bank): We're making more food boxes right now to replenish the line. The food boxes have been going out the door just about as quick as we can make them. As you can see, our racks are pretty bare right now.
MORALES: Ketchum points to empty shelves that used to be well-stocked.
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MORALES: One of the reasons can be found here, technological upgrades at your grocery store. Every time a cashier scans an item, that information is sent to its inventory spread sheet. That beep in the check out line means inventory needs replacing. This kind of technology has taken a lot of the guess work out of stocking the store shelves.
Brian Todd is the president of the Food Institute, a trade association that follows food manufacturing trends.
Mr. BRIAN TODD (President, Food Institute): A few years back, food companies started cutting many of the costs out of their supply chains, so they're producing product much more on demand. There was a lot of excess capacity that they cut from the system.
MORALES: And that has had a direct impact on smaller food banks that depend on hand-me-downs from grocery stores.
Mr. TODD: Meaning that there were the - there's fewer products out there for them to be able to donate to food banks.
MORALES: Some of that has been up by extra production. Some major food corporations will produce an extra semi-load of food specifically to donate. A lot of those donations go to Feeding America, a 200 food bank network. They provide food for 25 million Americans each year. Because of partnerships with Wal-Mart and other large grocery chains, they've been able to keep up with growing demand. But most food banks are small, independent and don't have as many partnerships. They rely on other sources.
At Northern Arizona Food Bank, donations are down 40 percent. That's due in part to that better efficiency at grocery stores, but also a new competitor: dollar stores.
About five years ago, they started competing with food banks for mislabeled boxes and dented cans. Food manufacturers now can actually sell their excess food rather than donate it.
Mr. TERRY SHANNON (CEO, Saint Mary's Food Bank Alliance): If they have the ability to get 20, 30, 40 cents on a dollar to sell it into a secondary market, it becomes a financial decision not a social responsibility decision.
MORALES: That's Terry Shannon, CEO of Arizona-based Saint Mary's Food Bank Alliance, a member of Feeding America. They aren't hurting so much because food purchases are only about 5 percent of their inventory. But independent food banks, like Northern Arizona, purchase a larger portion of their food and they're feeling the pinch.
Director Kerry Ketchum.
Mr. KETCHUM: With these trends the way they are today and the food being sold off by manufacturers to 99 cent stores, at some point in the future, nonprofit food banks may become the 49 cent stores.
MORALES: In the meantime, food bank directors are lobbying Washington to provide a bigger incentive, a bigger tax break to encourage more donations to the hungry.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff, Arizona.
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