Failing banks and defaulting mortgage lenders are making news headlines, but the effect that ripples down isn’t always readily apparent to the average citizen. When a family can’t afford food, however, that’s a different story. And the numbers of families nationwide unable to feed themselves has been growing dramatically, say people who work with Seattle area food banks.
“There was a dramatic turn at the beginning of the year, and in February and March it rapidly got worse,” said Derek Wertz, manager of Jewish Family Service’s food bank program. “I have moms that work full time and families that both [parents] work, and between rent and kids and fuel and groceries, they can’t get by.”
Though JFS only serves a small neighborhood service area — a swath from the International District to the Lake Washington waterfront at Madison Park — the effects of the closing in August of the Operation Emergency Center, a much larger food bank and service center in South Seattle, have worked their way up to JFS’ Capitol Hill headquarters.
“Even though that’s not necessarily a population we’re serving, the spillover affects West Seattle, and then West Seattle is stressed and it affects St. Mary’s, and St. Mary’s is our neighborhood, and then that affects more people,” said Carol Mullin, director of emergency services at JFS.
In addition to the neighborhood service area, the JFS food bank serves anyone who is Jewish in the greater Seattle area as well as the Russian Jewish community in Bellevue’s Crossroads neighborhood. They also provide home delivery services for mostly elderly or “close to being homebound” Jews, according to Mullin, and, through a separate contract with the City of Seattle, for homebound seniors who can’t make it to food banks on their own.
But more clients in need of food is not the only problem.
“What’s compounding the issue beyond the increased number of clients are food costs and fuel costs,” said Wertz, “and as those numbers of clients are climbing, so are the expenses to accommodate, and that’s been the compounding factor that’s has really magnified this as an issue.”
It’s an issue that caused Gov. Christine Gregoire to release $200,000 from the state’s emergency fund this past June.
“Because of prices now charged at the pump, food banks must weigh whether it is worth it to go pick up donations when they must pay $5 a gallon for diesel,” Gregoire said in a statement. “They haven’t had to make that choice before. Our grant will help the food banks close that gap.”
In many cases, prices have doubled: What two years ago was 28 cents per pound of rice has risen to 56 cents per pound.
“Multiply that by 800 or 900 pounds of rice that we buy in a month,” said Mullin.
Other cost increases have come from unexpected corners as well: Paper bags, of which JFS and other food banks use thousands each week to distribute goods to their clients, have also doubled in price to 20 cents per bag, a cost that JFS can no longer afford to bear.
“I’ve been asking people to help out…by donating paper bags in large quantities,” said Jane Deer-Hileman, JFS’ director of volunteer services. “That’s begun, but it hasn’t gotten as large as I think it could get.”
While food drives such as the one being heavily promoted by many synagogues during the High Holidays are helpful, they are still only a fraction of the food that JFS needs and brings in. However, with the current state of the economy, said Wertz, bags and food are less likely to make it into the pipeline.
“What’s happening with these food drives is that people are going to the store and realizing their dollar isn’t going as far to donate into the emergency feeding program or the food bank,” he said.
The numbers bear that out. Between the end of June 2006 and June 2008, the number of households served in the food bank has increased by nearly 36 percent, while the amount of food donated has gone down 32 percent. To keep giving food to all of its clients, JFS has had to purchase 120,000 pounds of food this year, up from the 24,700 pounds it purchased two years ago — a near-fivefold increase.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to serve less people, it just means there are going to be fewer cans of free beans that we get or fewer boxes of macaroni and cheese — the real staples,” said Wertz.
The food not purchased or directly donated comes from two hunger relief agencies, Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest, which distribute food and money to all of the local food banks in their network.
A food bank like JFS, partly because it is the only one connected to the supply chain that serves a Jewish clientele and partly because of the diversity of the neighborhoods it serves, must consider special diets such as Asian foods, diabetic, and, of course, kosher. Keeping the kosher shelves stocked has become an especially difficult challenge.
“Sometimes we’re day-to-day,” said Mullin. “Sometimes we sort of scrape through our shelves and come up with a couple of things.”
While the holiday food drive will certainly help, collecting food once a year does not sustain those needs until the next High Holiday season.
“People need to eat all year long,” said Deer-Hileman. “The food bank needs to operate all year long…. This exists all the time. It’s not just the one time of the year that we talk about it.”
Like most food banks in the region, the JFS food bank purchases its goods from a wholesaler, which they say offers the best prices available locally. Also, by working in concert with these other food banks, as well as the two umbrella food organizations, the groups had managed to procure goods at very low cost from all over the western United States, but even that’s changing.
“Because we have such high collaboration, there’s the ability to secure many great opportunities that sometimes come as far as Texas or Oklahoma. What’s really been a thorn in that part of food purchasing is fuel costs,” said Wertz. “They were great deals because we were receiving this heavily discounted product and the only cost to incur was fuel.”
Members of the Seattle Food Committee, a hunger relief group of which Wertz is a part, have been working on creative ideas to get around these price increases, but even those nascent efforts face some challenges.
“There’s a major effort, just happening as we speak, of connecting food banks to farms,” said Wertz. However, “Being up here in this part of the world, we’re limited on seasons, and when we have summers like we did this year with May and June, it delays harvest and it cuts into a dependable amount of food service.”
But conversations, he said, have moved into asking the city to give developers incentives to include green and garden space in their projects as well as using vacant lots to grow food.
For families in need, Jewish Family Service has not been the only place to turn. With a supply for each client that lasts only about three days, many use more than one food bank. Others turn to their own communities for help.
That’s where organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which offers interest-free loans of up to $3,000, could come in. But that organization, which has been operating in Washington State since 1914, has not seen any up-tick in requests in the past year.
“We have sufficient money to help people, but we don’t have enough people to seem to want it,” said Florence Katz Burstein, the HFLA’s recording secretary. Burstein credited some of the lack of interest to the ability to find easy credit, but with the collapse of two large financial institutions just this week, that avenue may quickly disappear.
What will not disappear, however, is the need for food. As JFS’ Wertz emphasized, nutritious food is a basic right. And where some food banks may be resorting to turning people away, that’s not an option for him, even if it means his clients must make more with less.
“We’re not out,” he said. “We’re not turning people away, and if it’s on my clock, as far as I’m concerned, we never will.”