Food banks see deposits shrink, withdrawals grow

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WASHINGTON — Scorching drought and demand for ethanol across the globe have pushed corn prices up to $7 a bushel — more than double what the nation’s farmers fetched in 2005. In fact, all food exports from the U.S. are projected to reach a record high.

That is good news for American farmers. But it’s bad news for the growing ranks of the hungry.

The booming market means that the Agriculture Department has less need to help farmers by buying excess crops. And this has resulted in a precipitous drop in staples the government donates to food banks, known as bonus commodities, from nearly 500 million pounds in 2010 to 371 million this fiscal year.

“Food banks are really being hit,” said Lynn Brantley, the Capital Area Food Bank’s agency’s outgoing president. “With the drop in commodities, the higher cost of food and the higher cost of gasoline, we have to be ever-creative at working at ways to fulfill a tremendous gap.”

In Loudoun County, Va., — the country’s most affluent county — the pantry has compensated for the shortage with outside donations and handed out Thanksgiving bags to 2,000 people. But the pantry was short of about 200 grocery store gift cards for turkeys.

Hunger advocates like Brantley say they’re continuing to see more formerly middle-class families asking for food because they’ve lost jobs or hours, and the working poor who simply can’t make ends meet due to the area’s high cost of living.

“Everybody’s struggling and needs some kind of help,” said William Savoy, 50, a Popeye’s employee waiting in line in the Dodge Park neighborhood in Landover, Md., one frosty morning, hoping for a bag of potatoes and maybe some onions from a mobile pantry.

The line formed at dawn, and those on hand initially passed the time in good humor, despite the chilly temperatures. They swapped recipes and talked about ways to cook the free pumpkins that were being given away. But things grew tense after the food distribution began and supplies dwindled. Some who had already been through the line and wanted seconds began trying to elbow out newcomers. A shouting match broke out over the last remaining cabbages.

“Can I have a gallon of milk? Please? I have three kids,” said Sadie Conteh, 43, a nurse’s assistant from Bowie, Md.

Bonus commodities were down 27 percent nationally this year, until a $170 million purchase of meat this summer to help farmers affected by the drought, according to Feeding America, the consortium of the country’s food banks. That meat will not begin making its way to the hungry until after the holidays.

“Commodities now represent less than 20 percent of our total food volume, a decline of some 150 million pounds. That’s a significant loss of food,” said spokesman Ross Fraser.

The Agriculture Department typically has money budgeted each year to buy food for its emergency food-assistance program — about $260 million this fiscal year. The bonus commodities add substantially to that steady donation.

But with agriculture prices up 6 percent since the recession and expected to remain high through 2013, bonus commodities are unlikely to increase, experts say, although market forces are unpredictable.

“Unless we see a sharp drop off in prices, there will be less pressure for them in the future to make bonus buys than there has been in the past, “ said Patrick Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

Both versions of the Farm Bill pending in Congress call for expanding the program’s funding while cutting dollars for food stamps, but lawmakers may not act before the end of the year.

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