Some of the nation’s bigger food charities and food banks are reporting that donations have continued long-standing declines, decreases that may well continue through the holidays.
Officials at the charities fear that “donor fatigue” may have set in, with people’s charitable instincts stretched to the limit in a year of an uncommon number of weather-related tragedies.
At food charities in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Milwaukee, donations are down in large measure because of the one-two punch of serial disasters at home and abroad.
The desperate call for donations for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and other Gulf Coast storms, was only compounded by the staggering need in Pakistan after an earthquake killed 70,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Less food, more people who need it
Those dire situations have a parallel in America's growing food needs. An October report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 2004 was the fifth consecutive year in which the number of Americans in households at risk of hunger increased. The number of people living in what the USDA calls “food-insecure” households rose to 38.2 million last year, including 13.8 million children.
Food-bank officials say the problem's only gotten worse since then. The effect has been the worst of scenarios: a decrease in food donations and an increase in the number of people who need them.
“Our food donations are significantly down this year compared to last year — they’re down about 20 percent,” said Becky Guerra, community affairs director for Northwest Harvest, a Washington state-based charity with offices in Seattle and warehouses serving 300 food banks throughout western Washington. “But our client numbers are up.”
Guerra said the charity’s Cherry Street Food Bank in Seattle “is serving 3,000 more households a month compared to last year.”
“We’re seeing people being pushed over the edge, struggling to feed themselves and heat their homes. They're having to stretch that much more. People are having to choose between medical expenses and good as other social services are cut,” Guerra said. “We're hoping it’s a temporary situation, but we just don know at this point.”
The young and the old
Guerra noted that those most vulnerable in society — the very young and the very old — bear the brunt. “Forty percent of the people we serve are children, and that’s held steady from year to year,” she said. “Another 17 percent are elderly.”
Guerra admitted that, because her organization doesn't put the needy through the hassle of paperwork in order to get assistance, some of her information was anecdotal in nature. “We don't have detailed demographics; we just know what we see every day — we're seeing more, more, more.”
It's much the same in Los Angeles. “We are down a little compared to last year,” said Darren Hoffman, public relations director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “The reason for that mainly is related to disasters. Some of our bigger donors nationally have redirected a lot of their product — and appropriately so — to the Gulf Coast during the disasters. That's where we're seeing a bit of a downtrend.”
“Last year we distributed 45 million pounds of food, so year-to-date we’re about 12 percent down from that,” Hoffman said. “On [financial] donations, we're waiting to hear. A lot of our direct-mail appeals are out right now. Most of our donors are pretty strong and steadfast; they might pull out some extra money. We probably won't know about financial donations until early next year, but in product donations we have seen a decrease.”
In Milwaukee, a fall food drive held by a regional food bank collected about 19,200 pounds of food, down from about 40,600 pounds last year.
“We heard specifically from many of the schools that the reason why they weren’t collecting this year was that they had already collected for Katrina victims in September,” said Gina Styer, spokeswoman for Wisconsin's chapter of America’s Second Harvest, the largest network of U.S. food banks.
City Harvest, a New York City relief organization that delivers donated food to hundreds of community programs throughout the city's five boroughs, notes that donations of turkeys, staple of Thanksgiving, are down dramatically.
“Could we use more turkeys? Yes,” said Patricia Barrick, director of marketing and communication at City Harvest. “We’ve gotten about 3,500 turkeys so far; we can use about 10,000.”
Barrick said that partly because of diversion of funds on behalf of Gulf Coast storm victims, her organization was down about $160,000.
The Food Bank for New York City, which supplies meals to 240,000 New Yorkers a day, has similarly reported a drop in donations of holiday turkeys — and food in general.
“We are tapping into our reserves,” spokeswoman Lisa Jakobsberg told The Associated Press. “I have not seen our shelves as empty as they are right now since 9/11.”
A bright spot, in cans
For City Harvest’s Barrick, the outlook isn’t entirely bleak. “The good news is in local donations,” she said. “Canned goods are still coming in. We're finding that individuals in New York want to donate, and we're very fortunate to have canned food drives that are going strong. Those donations are on a par with last year.”
The bigger challenge is in getting turkeys, the birds that are, for many, the gustatory symbol of the holiday season.
“It’s where we have to procure food from a distance,” Barrick said. “Turkeys fall into that category — New York isn’t where they breed turkeys — as well as fresh produce. Pennsylvania and the Midwest is where the wholesalers are, and bringing in things from far away, there’s always costs associated with that.”
For Barrick, and for the other charities as well, a waiting game begins, one that continues through December. “I think it’s the period where we sit patiently watching and waiting,” Barrick said.
“This is a very heavy fund-raising time,” she said. “We’re just getting into it now, looking to see if we’ll see donor fatigue resulting from anything from the hurricanes to Pakistan and everything else in the world. It is a critical fund-raising season for us.”