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Nonprofits strain to find enough donated food to fill the need

Eric West fills an order at Feeding America in Tampa in the fall. He crosschecks a list and gets the order and places it on a forklift. Behind West is the organization’s director, Pat Rogers.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2009)

Eric West fills an order at Feeding America in Tampa in the fall. He crosschecks a list and gets the order and places it on a forklift. Behind West is the organization’s director, Pat Rogers.

The St. Petersburg Free Clinic snags food photographed for Publix supermarket ads.

Capital Grille in Tampa freezes and donates leftovers to make stew for the less fortunate.

No sooner had a produce show closed Saturday at the Tampa Convention Center than trucks loaded tons of samples for a food bank.

Yet as thorough as all this hunter-gathering sounds, it masks the strain unemployment put on 627 Tampa Bay nonprofits that provide emergency food to people who fall through the government safety net.

A Feeding America study pinpoints just how pervasive "low food security" — people confronted with a choice of buying food or necessities like medicine — has spread.

One in eight Americans received emergency food in 2009, up 46 percent from 2006. In the Tampa Bay area it's one in six, up 27 percent from 2006 and far worse than the one in 10 who needed food assistance in 2002.

"It's been a real eye opener into how quickly we're losing ground," said Pat Rogers, director of Feeding America Tampa Bay, a food bank for food banks. Food stamps and Agriculture Department supplements fill 90 percent of the dietary needs of the jobless and working poor. But an informal network gathers food for the other 10 percent in soup kitchens, shelters and church food pantries.

Collections cover only half the demand for the 50,700 people in the 10 counties surrounding Tampa Bay who get emergency food weekly.

One myth: Emergency food feeds the homeless. In fact, the homeless make up only 19 percent of the 409,000 people who got emergency food last year. Twice as many are families; 150,000 are children.

Feeding America is part of a national network that gathers food donated by manufacturers. One problem: Donations of overproduction, scratch-and-dent goods and products stocked close to their sell-by date declined as food industry distribution grew more efficient.

So on top of canned and dry goods, Feeding America locally added perishables to its service to get more protein. The nonprofit reorganized to gather produce and day-old baked goods from a growing list of chains from Aldi to Walmart.

The grocers stepped in after Mike Vail, president of Sweetbay Supermarket, took over as chairman of Feeding America's predecessor in 2002. It's an uneasy transition for wary food bank clients. Some balked at paying 5 to 18 cents a pound for donated food to offset transportation costs.

Others fear a bigger Feeding America will cost them access to grocery store managers who donated food for years. Feeding America plans its first Pinellas County distribution center by summer.

Rogers, a former Cargill executive heading a food bank where she once did volunteer work, sees Feeding America gathering more food while clients gain time to put it in the right hands.

Her agency handled 11.6 million pounds of food in 2009, a 23 percent increase over 2008. But each extra percentage point of unemployment requires finding 2.5 million more pounds, enough to fill her warehouses twice.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Recession fuels

U.S. food insecurity

More working poor and unemployed are confronted with choosing between buying food and other necessities.

1998: 36 million

1999: 31 million

2000: 33 million

2001: 33 million

2002: 35 million

2003: 36 million

2004: 38 million

2005: 35 million

2006: 36 million

2007: 36 million

2008: 49 million

2009: 49 million

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

Nonprofits strain to find enough donated food to fill the need 03/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 11:36pm]
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