Food bank representatives agree on one thing: the need for their services is spiking in a way none of them can recall. Again and again, they emphasize that lines at food pantries are growing longer, seemingly by the month, and that those in line are younger and often more middle class than ever before.
Families who just months ago didn't even know what a food bank was and would never have considered visiting a food pantry now have far more intimate knowledge of both. Embarrassed to approach institutions that they previously identified with the poor and indigent, many, say food bank officials, are also waiting far too long to seek aid. Other formerly middle class Americans who have never dealt with, or even thought about, food insecurity before simply don't know whom to call or where to turn.
These points echo a December 2008 survey conducted by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity. Its network of more than 200 food banks in all 50 states distributes more than two billion pounds of donated groceries annually to 63,000 local charitable agencies. Its survey found that, of 160 food banks, 99.4% of them reported seeing more first-time users in 2008.
For America's food banks this has meant one thing: that they, too, are needier. They need ever more fresh food, non-perishable food, and non-food items like cleaning products and toiletries from wholesalers, retailers, food distributors, corporations, charities, government agencies, local farms, and individual donors. They need ever more storage and freezer space. They need ever more volunteers. They need ever more food that can be made available on appointed distribution days at food pantries. And they need ever more emergency food supplies, available on demand for people who suddenly realize that they are hungry and out of options, possibly for the first time in their lives. . . .
Even as Americans who once might have donated food or money now find themselves in need, people still have the urge to help as best they can. At one West Coast food bank, a representative told me of a man who recently came in with a proposition. He needed six weeks of food assistance while he was putting together the money to travel across country and move back in with his parents. Until then, he suggested, he would work for the food bank to pay his way . . . .
But that communal spirit can only take food banks so far, given the troubling trends on the horizon. According to Valanti, large foundations are reviewing their "decimated portfolios" and trimming donations, leaving organizations like hers wondering what the future will bring. In fact, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's subsidiaries are already struggling to obtain needed grants to secure new freezers to store food for the increasing number of nouveau needy. At the same time, she points out, food donations are actually down in her area, while the organization's food purchases have increased by an astonishing 560% in the last two years . . . .
Tens of millions of Americans were already suffering from hunger and food insecurity before the current depression. In fact, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 35.5 million Americans were "food insecure." Now, however, those numbers are bound to swell, thanks to the growing ranks of America's nouveau needy. "It's the new face of hunger for us. Before we primarily served the low-income population, the working poor, as people call them," says the San Diego Food Bank's Chris Carter. "Now middle class families who were in retail jobs, construction, the real estate industry… are finding themselves in our lines. Some of these people are those who would have donated food to us before, who would never dream they'd be in one of our food lines, and now they need help."
From his conversations with clients at the food bank's distribution sites, Carter sees bleak times ahead, especially for the staggering number of people who have, as a last resort, been maxing out their credit cards. "We've seen the credit crunch on Wall Street and the ripple effect that it's had on more vulnerable industries across the country. I think there's going to be a credit tightening at the consumer level. When that happens we're going to see a huge surge in demand," he said recently. "This is going to get worse before it gets better."
Such prospects will spell trouble in the years ahead. The Federal government is now pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into bailing out broken banks. If hunger and need continue to skyrocket, food banks may be the next banks to break. Who will bail them out?