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|Food bank strives to meet new challenges|
The Northeast Louisiana Food Bank believes one of the top priorities for any community is to make sure its residents do not go hungry.
Food bank officials hope state officials share that philosophy when they decide on funding priorities during the upcoming legislative session.
The state is facing a $2 billion budget shortfall in the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Budget cuts are already planned for higher education and health care. Some 60 percent-70 percent of the state budget is constitutionally mandated, leaving higher education and health care to bear the brunt of most budget cuts.
Since the beginning of the year, the food bank has witnessed a 35 percent increase in the number of people seeking help from the food bank over 2008 figures, according to Richard King, executive director of the Northeast Louisiana Food Bank.
"We're seeing a spike and it's almost every day that people are walking through that front door," King said.
Area food pantries that receive food from the food bank also have told King that for the first time ever they ran out of food during distribution to local residents and families.
Food bank officials expect more people to turn to the food bank in the near future. If people who recently lost their jobs have not found work by the time their unemployment benefits run out, King expects those people will need the food bank's services, too.
"There's a lot of impact that hasn't even been seen yet," King said. "If you take the closing of Bastrop's paper mill … those people are still getting unemployment benefits and severance benefits. Sooner or later that runs out and those people fall through the cracks. That's when they hit the food bank level. It's coming, and it's going to be substantial, so it's really important on a state level to make a case for continued funding."
King said an increased demand and a decrease in funding is a recipe for disaster for the charitable food business.
"Somebody has to help these people as they lose their jobs and everything else," King said. "Society can't turn its back on them and walk away. To me, that's not acceptable."
"When we look at the big picture in the charitable food business, the one thing that state funding has done over the past few years is help us stay even," King added.
In 2002, most of the supply at food banks throughout the country was comprised of USDA commodities, but since that time, food banks have seen a decline in the amount of food it receives from the federal government, King said. That decrease equals to roughly one million pounds of food each year that food banks did not receive from the federal government.
"Our distribution was up in 2008, but it was up primarily because we got state funding that enabled us to buy food to make up that shortfall we no longer got in USDA commodities," King said.
Also, there is a decline nationally in the amount of food being donated to food banks, King said.
For example, many companies that used to donate food to the food banks now sell it to second-hand vendors, which sell it to private companies such as dollar stores, King said.
"They're selling product that used to be donated to food banks and charitable relief organizations," King explained. "Matter of fact, they even come to us and offer to sell us that food. Sometimes we buy it from them.
"A lot of product that used to be donated is going into that for-profit market. We're seeing declines in food supply for all different kinds of reason."
Money provided by the state to Louisiana's food banks allows them to buy products from "Louisiana growers, producers, whole-sellers and vendors," King said.
"We're taking Louisiana money and buying food from Louisiana organizations to feed Louisiana people," King said. "The rationale behind this is we're helping our agri-business and recirculating that money into our own economy."
However, King said if food banks do not receive adequate state funding this year, they will have to figure out how to make up that shortfall.
"In total, we can't make it up," he said. "That's a lot of food."
Yet there are some positive things happening that will help the state's food banks.
One is a new partnership with Wal-Mart to take surplus food from each store in the 12-parish region and donate it to the food bank through the National Food Bank's Feeding America Program.
Within the next couple of months, the Northeast Louisiana Food Bank will begin picking up that surplus food from Wal-Mart stores throughout the region. Over time, that program will provide an additional 300,000 pounds of food each year for the local food bank.
"So, there are things out there that are positive," King said. "It's not all gloom and doom. There are companies like Wal-Mart that are beginning to step up to the plate and realizing it makes a lot of sense to be associated with the food banks."
Belinda Carver, development director for the food bank, said Wal-Mart has always been a good supporter of local food banks.
Wal-Mart stores often raise thousands of dollars through fundraisers to give to the food bank, she said.
She also said hunger is affecting more and more people and it will take many more to step up and help assist these people.
"This is something that people don't really talk about, but it can affect anybody, especially today," Carver said. "It could be somebody you work with or someone who sits by you in church."
She said at the latest fundraiser, a Wal-Mart associate pulled her aside with tears in her eyes. She recently found out that her daughter's family was getting food from the food bank. The mother did not know just how bad their situation was because the daughter was too ashamed to tell her.
"She thanked us for what we do," Carver continued. "These are people who lost their jobs. We are seeing people come into our doors who used to donate here. It can be one paycheck away from someone not having a job. The face of hunger has changed. These are people who through no fault of their own can't make it."
King said there are two reasons people donate food.
"No. 1, it's the right thing to do, and No. 2, there's a tax advantage," King said. "Rather than throw it in the dumpster or sell it to some for-profit second-hand vendor, it makes more sense economically to donate that food into the food banking system."
He hopes other food manufacturers will follow Wal-Mart's lead and donate food to their local food banks, too.
He also hopes the community will continue to support the food bank.
"Ultimately, this food bank belongs to the public," King said. "It belongs to the people of northeast Louisiana. It's the people of northeast Louisiana who will decide if this food bank is a worthwhile thing."
The food bank relies mostly on donations from all over the United States. It is the last resort for people who are without resources. It distributes more than three million pounds of food annually through 90 charitable agencies in northeast Louisiana.
For more information about the food bank, or to donate, call 322-3567.