NEW PORT RICHEY — A few years back, the warehouse at the Volunteer Way was bursting at the seams.
Containers of pork and beans. Bags of rice. Canned peas and corn. Each week the food bank received truckloads of edibles that fed thousands of families.
But the economic downturn has almost doubled demand at the food bank, and now the warehouse empties by midweek.
Food bank officials are struggling to find food to restock the shelves. So they've decided to grow some of it themselves.
"If we're going to survive, we have to find new ways to do things," said Volunteer Way chief executive Lester Cypher.
They've got land: a 2,700-square-foot tract behind the warehouse on Congress Street.
But they will need help. They plan to tap the Pasco County Cooperative Extension for tips about farming techniques and suitable crops. And they hope to enlist local youths — Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, kids from church youth groups and other nonprofits — to grow and harvest the food, teaching them a skill along the way.
Cypher admits that the idea, still in its beginning stages, is unique for a food bank, which traditionally deals with nonperishable items. But it may be cheaper and would promote healthier food options for the population being served.
"And I love getting the kids involved," Cypher said.
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Food banks nationwide are struggling to keep up with the demand.
Record-high energy, wheat and corn prices have pushed up the cost of most supermarket staples, leaving more families struggling to afford groceries. As the economy has soured, some families have taken in relatives and friends who lost their jobs, adding to the number of mouths they have to feed.
More people are turning to food banks for help. Last fall, the Volunteer Way had 4,000 families signed up to receive food. Now there are 7,000 on the list.
"Every day, new families come in here to pick up food," said Martha O'Brien, the food bank's assistant CEO. "People have lost their jobs and need help."
In the meantime, many distribution centers have less food to send to the food banks, according to the Washington Post. Farmers are sending more of their crops overseas, and grocery stores are cutting back on donations. Instead of sending their scratch-and-dent goods to reclamation companies that donate to food banks, more supermarkets are selling those items to discount stores.
The situation has become so dire that food banks in New York, Illinois and Louisiana have secured emergency funding from their state legislatures.
America's Second Harvest, the nation's leading hunger relief charity, is pressuring the federal government to increase funding for nutrition programs.
"Food banks are living on the edge of catastrophe," Maura Daly, a lobbyist for America's Second Harvest, told the Post.
While some food banks are also taking a hit on soaring gas prices, the Volunteer Way continues to pay a flat rate for bringing food shipments to its warehouse, Cypher said.
But with experts predicting that higher food prices are here to stay, the food bank needed to find more ways to stock its shelves.
"Our problem at this moment is that food is scarce," said O'Brien, 45. "We were thinking, 'How can we get food?' "
Novice green thumbs
So a few months ago, Cypher and O'Brien came up with the harvesting idea. They figured they couldn't go wrong with a fresh, renewable source of food.
O'Brien said it will give families the option of cooking with fresh vegetables.
The two plan to have workers clear the land behind the warehouse. They are also looking for other locations to harvest food.
Neither O'Brien nor Cypher has farming experience.
"I planted tomatoes at my house last year," O'Brien said, laughing, "and I got one tomato."
But they want to learn.
They're not sure what they can harvest, but would like to have seeds in the ground as early as May.
"This will be a challenge, because none of us are farmers," O'Brien said. "We need to start slowly. It's going to be a learning experience for everyone. It's exciting to learn something new."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached
or (727) 869-6229.