Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Food banks can't keep up with soaring need

Donations fall short in Middle Tennessee By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • December 16, 2009 The season of giving has turned into a lean season at Middle Tennessee food banks. Friday is delivery day at the Martha O'Bryan Center, Nashville's largest emergency food distribution center. That's when the Second Harvest truck arrives, carrying canned goods, cereal, pasta and produce. The shelves are restocked, and the doors open to waiting crowds that sometimes stretch around the building. "The truck comes on Friday. By Tuesday, we're running short," said Gregory Reynolds, who runs the center's food bank. At the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, the goal was to collect enough food to provide 361 agencies in 46 counties with enough food to last through January — some 7 million meals. So far, Second Harvest is 4 million meals short of its goal and facing the very real possibility of running out of food in January. "We're in a very critical position right now," said Tasha Kennard, director of marketing and communication for Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee. "We are way behind." More people than ever need help putting food on the table this year. And fewer people than ever seem to be in a position to help. In Davidson County alone, demand for food assistance is up 38 percent this year — and up 50 percent compared with five years ago, Kennard said. Many of the newcomers are applying for food assistance for the first time in their lives. Thirty-three percent of the people who come in to area food banks live in households where at least one person works, but that income isn't enough to put food on the table and pay the rest of the family's expenses. Of the thousands of people turning to food banks this year, half are children. Ten percent are elderly. Demand is high, but donations are down. "We've got more food drives going on than we ever had, and we're raising less food," Kennard said. "Fewer people are in a position where they feel they can donate." Right now, there are 136 food drives operating in Middle Tennessee, but they have collected less food than the 90 food drives that operated last year, she said. In November, Second Harvest fell 60,000 meals short of its goals, and December's collections are even shakier, despite corporate and private donations. Charity stretches dollars Part of the problem could be donor fatigue. It has been more than a year since the recession gutted the economy, and there are so many charities in need right now that many donors are being torn between equally worthy causes. Then there's the fact that even people who still have their jobs may not have a great deal of security in their own finances. "People are giving less because they're scared of what's happening with their own finances in the near future," Kennard said. "We're seeing what used to be $100 donations turning into $50 donations." Still, every donation counts. Second Harvest can stretch a $1 donation into four meals. Five dollars feeds 20 people, and so on. Donations may be down, but the holiday season is still inspiring plenty of people to donate their time and effort to area food banks. On Tuesday, dozens of volunteers reported to work at Second Harvest, sorting through boxes of donated goods from local stores — dented cans, produce edging up on its expiration date, but still a welcome addition to someone's supper table. "I had some spare time," said Chuck Handley, a returning volunteer from Franklin. Around him, volunteers sorted through the 10,000 pounds of food donated that day and sorted them into categories — cereal, vegetables, soup, pasta. "It's been very rewarding." One of six Tennesseans is at risk of hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Six months ago, the number was one out of eight. For more information, or to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank, call 615-329-3491 or visit

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