New Survey: Food Banks Struggle as Economic Woes and Record Unemployment Send Many Americans in Search of Food

September 14, 2009

Food banks across the nation report that the current recession and the continuing rise in unemployment are having a profound effect on their ability to feed millions of Americans living at risk of hunger, according to a new survey released today by Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief charity.

The increase is nearly universal – 99 percent of all participating food banks reported a significant surge in demand for emergency food assistance over the past year.

The hardest hit areas include Asheville, North Carolina; Fort Myers, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis; and food banks in South Carolina, Mississippi and Colorado.

Food banks report that the increase is particularly driven by first-time users of the food assistance system (98 percent of food banks) and more people who have recently lost their jobs (92 percent).

More than half (56 percent) of food banks reported that they are seeing more children as clients.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult for many food banks and their agencies to meet the needs of their clients, especially when new clients arrive all the time," said Vicki Escarra, president and C.E.O. of Feeding America."This is especially sobering when you consider that our network of 205 food banks delivered a record-breaking amount of food and groceries this past year–more than 2.6 billion pounds between July 2008 and June 2009 – which was an increase of 21.4 percent over the previous year."

"More and more families are waiting in lines overnight, coming out in high heat, or traveling long distances in rural America just to get a meal or a box of food. The humbling reality for many of these Americans is that they have never had to rely on emergency food assistance before, and they never dreamed they would find themselves in this situation," Escarra said.

More than half (55%) of food banks reported that they or the agencies who help distribute the food they provide have had to turn people away in the last year.

The survey showed an average increase of 30 percent in requests for emergency food assistance since July 2008, with increases ranging from 5 percent to more than 100 percent.

More than 175 Feeding America food banks responded to the survey, which collected information about the economic challenges faced by the nation's food assistance network, and the ability of food banks, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and other providers to respond to the need.

"While local economic circumstances, like plant closings, can have a significant impact on food banks, the most critical change we've seen over the past year in the ability of low-income families to put food on the table is a shift from the challenges of increasing food and fuel costs to unemployment and underemployment," said Escarra."We frequently hear stories from around the country that people who once donated to food banks are now waiting in lines as clients."

"Even in areas where food banks have reported more support in food and funds, they almost universally report that the need is outpacing the availability of resources," said Escarra."Most economists project that unemployment lags the return of economic stability following a recession by one to two years. This means that the incredible strain on the nation's charitable food assistance network is not likely to dissipate any time in the foreseeable future."

Additionally, participation in the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP formerly the Food Stamp Program), the largest of the nation's federal nutrition programs, reached an all-time record of 35 million recipients in June 2009–a 22 percent increase over a year prior. Child nutrition programs are currently set to expire on Sept. 30, 2009, and Congress will be considering whether to extend current levels of funding or increase funding in the coming weeks.

"This survey underscores the importance of Congress providing more funding for Child Nutrition programs this fall and supporting President Obama's pledge to end child hunger by 2015," said Escarra."It is both tragic and unacceptable for anyone in this nation to go hungry, but we are especially concerned for the 12 million children living in food insecure households and suffering long term consequences as a result. Recent research has shown that children in food insecure households have difficulty learning and are less likely to become healthy, productive members of our society."

Food banks also reported in the survey that increased support through federal nutrition programs, including through the recent American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, have provided vital support to their local efforts. Among food banks that distribute The Emergency Food Assistance Program, USDA's commodity program intended to help feed low-income Americans, 92 percent said the increase in food from the federal government has been very important to their capacity to meet the growing need. Additionally, half of the food banks cited recent increases in benefits from the SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) as being very important to clients in their service area.

"As Congress and the Administration balance a very daunting list of priorities to jumpstart our economy, I hope that they will continue to remember the poor and near poor who suffer the most," said Escarra."We are deeply grateful for the support our food banks and clients have seen from the federal government this year, but it is important to acknowledge that millions of people still are continuing to face extraordinarily difficult times."

For complete details on Feeding America's"Economic Impact Survey" including anecdotes from across the nation, please visit .


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