Bare Cupboards at the Food Banks

With jobs still scarce and the economy weak, even middle-class families are seeking sustenance from these organizations, which can't keep pace

As chief operating officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank, Carol Tienken is used to sad stories. Lately, though, the food pantries and soup kitchens throughout Massachusetts that rely on her supplies have been reporting an unusual twist: They're seeing more demand from the well-heeled. "One woman who used to work for a food pantry now [is] a client," says Tienken. "She drives up in her Volvo, and she's on the other end, asking for food."

Such stories aren't uncommon. In Phoenix, St. Mary's Food Bank is accommodating scores of laid-off Continental Airlines workers. In Atlanta, former WorldCom employees are frequenting local food banks.

It's the worrisome underside of an economy that has teetered for two years on the edge of decline, with only the confidence and spending of average consumers to sustain it. Now, reeling from corporate layoffs, middle-class families represent an alarmingly fast-growing constituency of the nation's estimated more than 200 food banks -- repositories of canned and fresh goods distributed to needy families.


  America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief outfit, served 23 million people in 2001. Spot checks of food pantries across the country show a traffic increase this year of 10% to 15%. Hidden in that number, some are reporting spikes of 40% to 50% in recent months as the economy continues to drag. With donations flat, owing to the soft economy, food pantries face a double whammy: Too much demand, not enough supply.

As they always have, food banks continue to serve primarily the working poor. But it appears that laid off workers, after months of fruitless job-searching, are exhausting their unemployment benefits and pushing food-relief demand to highs not seen for at least a decade.

During the late 1990s, the tech boom attracted scores of new residents to cities such as Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, and revved up the local housing markets. The increased rent and mortgage payments that accompanied the rising standard of living in such cities now are pinching the unemployed. Faced with the choice of paying an outsized mortgage or buying food for the month, some people are opting to keep their house and seek free food.

For example, "Roswell [and Alpharetta] are upper-income suburbs of Atlanta," says Barbara Duffy, executive director of North Fulton Community Charities. "But we have seen dramatic growth in need -- we see 80 to 100 families a day" -- up 40% since January.


  The rush on food banks also tells a bleak story about the effect of a sputtering economy, much less one in decline, on the neediest Americans. Mid-1990s welfare reform pushed about 50% of some 13 million recepients off the dole and into the workforce as the economy roared and job creation soared. Anecdotally, food-pantry directors are saying two years of a weak economy has forced many of those people out of their low-wage jobs. And, directors say, it's harder to get back on, with more stringent regulations and cuts in state budgets that fund assistance programs.

"It's set up such that we don't help you unless you have no assets left," says Rachel Bristol, executive director of the Oregon Food Bank in Portland. Such assets as a car or a house can render people ineligible for public aid, she says.

To make matters worse, financially strapped states are slashing budgets for human services like community centers that house soup kitchens. That in turn puts more pressure on umbrella food-donation clearinghouses, such as St. Mary's in Phoenix. About "430 different agencies rely on us for food," says director of community relations Sandy Schimmel, including 13 new ones that signed up in the last two months. The higher number reflects demand from hospices, children-in-crisis nursuries, and homeless shelters -- none of which relied on St. Mary's in sunnier days.


  At the same time, once plentiful supplies of free food suddenly can't keep up with the demand. Surplus food from grocery chains accounts for 60% of food-bank resources, but with grocery profits down, donations are slipping. "We used to get a lot of food donated that is now being sold to secondary markets or 99-cent stores," says Schimmel. St. Mary's disbursed 6,000 boxes of emergency rations in the three days before Thanksgiving -- vs. its normal average of 5,000 for an entire month.

Even though the government has extended unemployment benefits up to 13 weeks -- or 26 weeks in states with the highest jobless rates -- it's unclear when the pressure on food banks will ease. Nationwide unemployment rose to 6% in November, matching April's eight-year high. And weekly initial unemployment claims continue to hover around 400,000, indicating that the economy still isn't on a smooth trajectory to recovery.

Minorities could be in the most distress. The unemployment rate for African Americas rose to 11% from 9.8% in October. And joblessness remains at 7.8% nationwide for Hispanics, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, vs. 5.2% for whites.


  Unemployed Americans have been jobless, on average, about four and a half months. And historically, notes Daniel J.B. Mitchell, professor of human resources at the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Business, "as unemployment goes higher, duration goes higher, too." Thus, in the near future "there are going to be more people who have long-term unemployment problems," he says.

Many of the poor and laid-off who frequent food pantries have found seasonal work. But in January those jobs will evaporate -- along with the usual holiday spike in donations to food banks. "We're in this for another half-year at least," predicts Boston's Tienken. For her clients, that means the most desperate winter in nearly a decade.

By Brian Hindo, with Amy Tsao in New York

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE