Budget cuts leave food bank hungry for cash

Supermarkets also donating less food

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank occupies more than 75,000 square feet in downtown Providence. Located at 200 Niantic Ave., the food bank’s warehouse can hold nearly 2 million pounds of food at one time. Yet as another bitter New England winter settles in, it is unlikely that the facility will be filled to capacity.

Despite the efforts of the food bank staff and thousands of local volunteers, it appears as though a number of Rhode Islanders will go hungry this holiday season, according to Andrew Schiff, executive director of the bank.

The food bank serves as a distribution site, bringing in food from outside sources and dividing it among the local agencies. Its stocks reach approximately 51,000 needy Rhode Islanders each month, according to the bank’s Web site.

But recent budget cuts have slashed state funding for the food bank, and as a result, the facility is expecting distribution rates to reach an all-time low for the upcoming year. Decisions by Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 and the General Assembly to cut government grants to the food bank in half – from $384,000 to $192,000 annually – will translate into “1.5 million pounds” of food lost, Schiff said.

This is a “huge loss,” said Schiff, considering that the food bank has disseminated about 8 million pounds annually in the past.

Food distributed by the bank comes from growers, producers, manufacturers, community food drives, distributors, retailers and food service establishments located in Rhode Island and elsewhere across the country, Schiff said. The food is then sorted and checked by food bank employees, volunteers and community service workers before being divided among nearly 300 local agencies, including food pantries, homeless shelters and day care centers.

The food bank’s budget relies almost entirely on donations. It is a registered nonprofit organization that is 90 percent privately funded, 8 percent state funded and 2 percent federally funded, according to its Web site.

But with the growing economic crisis, nearby supermarkets – which Schiff said are the food bank’s main source of supplies – are donating less food. For the last couple of years, the bank has seen an average annual decrease in donations of about 600,000 pounds of food per year, he said.

Forced to seek donations elsewhere, the food bank has relied on the support of Feeding America, a national umbrella organization of more than 200 food banks, Schiff said. Feeding America negotiates with large food companies, such as Kellogg’s and Walmart, to donate truckloads of product.

Member organizations of Feeding America then request the supplies, Schiff said, and the division of food is based on the number of people served. Though Rhode Island’s economy is weaker than many states’ – its 9.3 percent unemployment rate is tied for highest in the nation – its small population means that the food bank can’t serve as many people as programs in larger urban areas serve. Though a high percentage of Rhode Islanders are in need, the food bank rarely receives donations from these larger national corporations.

The food bank purchases some of the food it distributes, using previously allocated state funds to pay for the purchases and transportation. But because that grant was cut in half this year, the food bank has not been able to buy as much as food as it has in recent years.

Compounding the decrease in supply is an increase in demand for the bank’s services. According to Schiff, 20 of the food bank’s largest partner agencies are serving a combined 20,000 people per month – up 12 percent over the last 12 months ­­- and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

When less food enters the partner agencies, it becomes more and more difficult for them to provide for the people in need. Schiff said this creates a “terrible” situation for people in need.

“Right now the way that we’re trying to handle this is by getting the food pantries and soup kitchens to collaborate more,” Schiff said. The food bank is encouraging partner agencies to “ration their portions” and “give everyone less” in an effort to conserve supplies while still serving the hungry, he added.

“Reducing the number of pantries will not fix the problem,” Schiff said, “because if one pantry is empty, a hungry person will simply go to the next one.”

Schiff described visiting a site in Coventry last month that had “literally no food.” Schiff said that this agency, among others, would be forced to depend on local food drives in order to restock before the holidays.

Pride and poverty

Lorraine Burns, who has run the St. Teresa of Avila food pantry – which receives food from the bank – on Manton Avenue in Providence for more than a decade, said the poverty she has seen this year is “worse than ever.”

“The need just keeps growing, growing, growing,” she said.

“We used to see a certain type of person,” she said.

“But now there are people coming to me who I never would have seen years ago.”

St. Teresa’s has traditionally operated on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, but hard times have forced the food pantry to open its doors on Wednesday nights as well. Over the course of five weeks before Thanksgiving, the Wednesday night pantry has served more than 116 families.

“We’re serving the working poor on Wednesdays,” Burns said. She reported giving food to maintenance workers, nurses, teachers – groups that typically haven’t needed the aid of social services in the past.

“They’re embarrassed,” Burns said. “It hurts their pride.”

Before Thanksgiving, Burns said, a man in his 70s came to St. Teresa’s on Friday morning, when he knew the food pantry was closed – because he did not want anyone to see him asking for help.

The man sat down in Burns’ office, she said, and explained that his son, daughter-in-law and five children had moved into his home after the son lost his job. The man and his wife had been living on Atwells Avenue on a fixed retirement income and could not afford to feed the extra seven mouths. He broke down in tears as Burns handed him four bags of food for the weekend.

But Burns cannot distribute food without discretion. She estimates that 80 to 85 percent of her resources come from the food bank, and with a limited supply in recent months, she has been forced to make difficult decisions, turning away some single people and young couples in favor of feeding families with children.

“It’s a challenge every single day,” Burns said. She said she “lies awake at night” worrying about the people she serves. “They have come to depend on me.”

The 700 people Burns serves monthly indeed seem dependent. Some wait in line for hours for food shipments to arrive, and others frequent nearby food pantries when they can’t find what they need at St. Teresa’s, she said.

Funds for the future

This winter, government employees and elected politicians will begin planning the state’s budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

As they have in past years, legislators will hear testimony from many nonprofits, like the food bank, pleading on behalf of the organizations.

Meredith Holderbaum, a legislative fiscal analyst on the state senate fiscal advisory staff, described these hearings as “heart wrenching” and “very difficult,” as legislators often hear from managers like Schiff, and citizens directly benefiting from the social outreach programs.

In the end, however, state leaders must decide “what’s most important,” Holderbaum said.

Because 90 percent of the food bank’s operating budget comes from private donations, many legislators assumed that it and its peer organizations would be able to operate normally under large state budget cuts, Holderbaum said. In April, the state acted on that assumption, cutting the budget for fiscal year 2008 by 10 percent.

Two months later, in June, the state announced the budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which reduced all grants to nonprofit organizations – including the food bank – by 50 percent.

Schiff said he’s not confident that the state will pay even this newly reduced grant – so far, the food bank has received just a quarter of the $192,000 grant for fiscal year 2009.

“I completely don’t trust them,” he said. “Are they going to make good on these grants” for 2009?

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