Food banks nationwide are being forced to toss thousands of pounds of food containing peanut products recalled in the salmonella outbreak — a particularly painful process as those same pantries struggle to meet a growing demand in a loundering economy.
Foods like granola bars, cereals, cookies, nut mixes and peanut butter have long been a mainstay of pantries because of their durability and long shelf life.
"It's just been rotten. It's just been a problem for us," said Betsy Ballard, spokeswoman for the Houston Food Bank, which already has discarded 3,000 pounds of recalled products.
Millions of U.S. families depend on charity organizations to put food on the table, and the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Feeding America, says food banks across the country reported a 30 percent increase in demand in December 2008 compared with the previous year.
The peanut recall is a double blow for the pantries because it means they have to throw away much-needed donations and keep other foods with peanuts on hold while workers spend hours searching their stockpiles for the tainted items instead of serving those in need.
"At a time when food banks are struggling, everything inevitably has an impact," said Karen Pozna, spokeswoman for the Cleveland Food Clinic — where workers have thrown out about 1,000 pounds of food and have kept another several thousand pounds of snacks on hold until the recall list levels off.
The salmonella outbreak has sickened nearly 600 people and is linked to nine deaths. Federal health officials are investigating allegations that a Peanut Corp. of America plant knowingly shipped off tainted peanuts because of worry over lost sales. More than 1,900 products have been recalled, although major label brands of jarred peanut butter are not affected.
Screening donated food
In Houston, food bank workers have gone through 10,000 boxes that had been sorted and packaged to give away and thrown out 3,000 pounds of food. In Chicago, officials have thrown out almost 500 pounds and are keeping foods with peanuts separate from supplies going out to people. And in Lafayette, Ind., Food Finders Food Bank Inc. has disposed of or quarantined 1,327 pounds.
Federal health officials estimate 1,000 pounds of food can feed approximately 780 people.
Workers at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the city's clearinghouse for nearly 600 local food banks, can spend half their day picking through donated food for recalled items.
The work is tedious but crucial, said spokesman Bob Dolgan, pointing out two pallets of boxes full of recalled peanut butter packets in the depository's warehouse. They had been purchased for a student lunch program and were a nearly last-minute catch.
"We've isolated that food and it'll be destroyed," Dolgan said.
At the Houston Food Bank, which distributes about 80,000 pounds of food a day, 30 volunteers were pulled from daily line duties and assigned full time to making sure no peanut-laden products ended up in food supplies, said Ballard, the spokeswoman.
"It's not efficient to comb through (donations). That's the needle in a haystack," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Chicago-based Feeding America. "This is the last thing we need at this point."
Lazendra Collins, 21, waited for her produce and nonperishable items outside a church food pantry on Chicago's southwest side last week, noting she's been extra cautious and has stopped serving peanut butter to her three children — even though her 2-year-old daughter, a picky eater, cries when she doesn't get her favorite PB&J sandwiches.
"It's extra confusing, extra stress," said Collins, who has been looking for a job, trying to return to school and saving money to move out of her mother's place. "My daughter loves her peanut butter and jelly, but I'm just going to stay away. I'm scared."