Food Banks Come Up Short

At the food bank in Washington, D.C., Barbara Livingston is stocking up on supplies: huge bags of potatoes and onions, crates of milk, and boxes of clementines.

This is a good day — she should have enough to feed everyone who comes to her food pantry.

But this year, these days are rare.

"We give them the best we can," says Livingston. "This food bank, well, it's not always as good as it used to be."

It's the same story all across the country: food banks are running critically short on supplies.

"We are getting less food donated into our system," says Brian Smith, the chief operating officer of the Capital Area food bank in D.C. "That means we are able to get less food back out into the community."

This time last year, Smith's food bank had 570,000 pounds of donated goods. This year, they have less than half that.

It's a simple matter of supply and demand. Farmers sell more of their goods, so there's less agricultural surplus being donated. And supermarkets are more efficient at inventory control, so, they also have less to give away.

At the same time, more Americans are struggling to put food on the table — hit by everything from the mortgage crisis to high gas prices.

"We're hitting new records almost every week on the number of families we are serving," says Christine Lucas, who runs the Arlington Food Assistance Center in Virginia.

At the Arlington center, which relies on the D.C. food bank for much of its supply, those on line say the offerings are thinner.

"There's less now as far as meats and things like that," says Pablo Sanchez. He comes each week for bags of food, and says he could not get by without them. "Everything is more expensive, from my bills and rent going up," he says. "It's just really hard to get by."

Critics say the crunch points to a more systemic problem.

"We've become very dependent on food banks as a solution to hunger in this country, and have neglected some of the more fundamental problems that are facing those who just don't have enough to eat," says Mark Winne, former director of a food bank in Hartford, Conn., and author of "Closing the Food Gap."

But for many, finding enough to eat is challenge enough.

Margaret, who didn't want to give her last name, got a turkey from the Arlington center for Thanksgiving. But there's no guarantee she'll get one for Christmas.

"Hopefully, [there will be] another turkey," she says. But if not, she'll take whatever she can get. "Anything's better than nothing, I guess."

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