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Nation’s food banks stretched thin

Dan Gorenstein Nov 21, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: There’s a certain Catch-22 that weak economies bring — especially when it comes to helping people in need. Because just as the demand for social services rises, the resources available to provide those services dries up.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, Dan Gorenstein reports a lot of food pantries and soup kitchens are facing rising food prices and a drop in charitable giving.

Dan Gorenstein: Christopher Persall started to notice changes at his local soup kitchen earlier this summer. More and more, he says, he’s getting less and less.

Christopher Persall: So now, instead of being able to get food every day of the week, we can get two days out of the week. And once a month we can go on Monday. And that by itself shows you how much has changed.

Persall works occasional landscaping jobs. He, his wife and their 2-year-old son live off food stamps and whatever he can get his hands on at this soup kitchen in Nashua, a small city in Southern New Hampshire.

Since July, demand from the needy has doubled. And it’s getting less food from one of its main suppliers — the New Hampshire Food Bank. In response, the staff is limiting how often people like Persall can pick up carrots, potatoes and bananas.

Persall: It’s dwindled down to the point that it’s upsetting to people who have been coming here for a long time.

The organization Feeding America runs 200 food banks around the country, providing staples to 61,000 soup kitchens, shelters and pantries. Since 2008, the group has seen annual increases in amount of food it delivers. But this year, spokeswoman Maura Daly says Feeding America is projecting no growth in the food it distributes.

Maura Daly: It means that the need is outpacing our ability to keep up with it.

The problem boils down to a matter of resources. On the one hand, charitable donations to food banks have dropped. The New Hampshire Food Bank for example has seen business and corporate giving plummet 45 percent over last year. At the same time, food prices are rising, stretching budgets of food assistance programs across the country.

Ken Kupchick: I think they are up maybe 4 to 6 percent this year, and projected to be up maybe another 3 percent next year.

Ken Kupchick is the development director for the River Valley Food Bank in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Last year $1,000 bought 40 cases of tuna, this year it nets him 32. The price of turkey has shot up more than 20 percent, putting a crimp in Kupchick’s Thanksgiving plans. He found a producer in Pennsylvania who’s selling the birds for a good price, $0.93 a pound. But of course there was a catch.

Kupchick: There will be a leg missing. The wings might be missing.

These are so-called “after-market” turkeys that have been damaged during processing.

Kupchick: They’ll be awkward. Awkward turkeys.

The symbolism isn’t lost on Kupchick. He says the iconic image of prosperity and abundance — a plump, golden brown turkey, is being pushed aside.

Kupchick: It’s hard to imagine this is our new Norman Rockwell image of America. It’s our new reality, I’m afraid to say.

To prove the point, Kupchick says even with the great deal on Turkeys, he’s not sure this Thanksgiving he’ll be able to afford the damaged birds.

In Concord, N.H., I’m Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace.

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