St. Louis-area food banks struggling to keep up with rising need | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis-area food banks struggling to keep up with rising need

Nov 21, 2011

With one of the biggest meals of the year fast approaching, those who rely on St. Louis area food pantries for Thanksgiving may be in trouble. The USDA’s food assistance program is sending far less to agencies like the St. Louis Area Food Bank than in past years. And as Tim Lloyd reports, the shortfall is making it hard for the food banks to keep up with a rising need for help.

A ten-fold increase in demand

It’s food pick up day at the Salvation Army food pantry in O’Fallon.

Waiting in the lobby is a mix of people, ranging from the elderly to young professionals. Danielle Myler holds her 1-year-old daughter Sierra tight against her chest.

“My husband had a good job, things were going good, I guess what you’d consider stable," Myler says.  Normal changes very quickly.”

At this pantry there’s been a ten-fold increase in demand this year alone, and it’s much the same across the 26 counties served by the St. Louis Area Food Bank.

At the food bank’s Earth City warehouse they’re hustling to keep up.  

Workers load truck after truck with beans, corn, cereal, peanut butter, snack food, but it’s pretty clear there’s not a lot to go around. Parts of this place look like a half empty wholesale club.

“You can see this one entire row is empty, " says Matt Dace, the food bank’s director. "If it were this time last year this row would be full of TEFAP commodities pallets that are ready for allocation to agencies.”

TEFAP stands for Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The USDA runs it and lately there’s been a steep drop in what the food bank receives.    

“Over the course of the quarter when compared to the same quarter in 2010 we’ve received about a million pounds less,” Dace said.

Rising costs, rising demand

Rising food costs are largely to blame for the decline.

The USDA buys extra food, or what it calls “bonus” commodities, to help support farmers and food banks reap the benefits.

And while today’s high prices are great for farmers, they’ve been hard on food banks. Ross Fraser is with Feeding America, a national food bank organization.

“Government spending to purchase USDA bonus commodities has declined dramatically in the last year because the government has not needed to spend the money to keep farm prices stable," Fraser said. "The result of that is far less food coming into the food bank system.”

And the stimulus money that used to help them keep step with rising demand is gone. Less money, less food and skyrocketing demand makes keeping people fed an uphill battle.

"It's affected all the areas."

Just ask Rich Grayson, he runs the Emmanuel Baptist food pantry in Desoto.

“We’ve always had a food pantry, but, you know, used to give away three or four food boxes away a month. And now, you know, it’s 300 plus,” Grayson said.

The soft-spoken minister with a trimmed gray beard waits in the food bank’s lobby. He and some volunteers are here to pick up a couple trailers worth of food.

“It’s all levels, people who’ve had $100,000 jobs coming through and getting food," Grayson said. "I mean, it’s affected all the areas.”
However, there’s been a bright spot, donations from the public remained steady during the lingering recession.

But food bank director Matt Dace says with so many hungry people they have to have USDA help.

Dace: “If things continue as they have over the last quarter being able to keep up with demand from the 500 agencies we serve who collectively serve 261,000 people is going to be a chore that we’re not able to complete."

Lloyd: "What happens if you don’t have the food?"

Dace: "People just don’t eat.”

And a hazy fiscal picture has Dace feeling anxious.

The program’s budgetary fate rests in the hands of what’s been dubbed the “Super Committee.” The deadline to announce their spending proposal is Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.