Food banks say Katrina, other changes hurting food donations

Monday, October 17, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Just in time for the normally busy fall and holiday season, the largest food bank in the Kansas City area has warned that its pantry could be leaner than in past years.

Harvesters, which gives out food to agencies in 13 counties of western Missouri and eastern Kansas, said food donations during the third quarter were down 8 percent from the same period a year ago.

Officials with the organization blame a combination of Hurricane Katrina, less help from a local food manufacturer and changes in how a national food bank distributes its supplies. They said they're trying to make up the difference as best they can.

"People who needed Harvesters before will need us more now," said Karen Siebert, a spokeswoman for the group.

This summer ConAgra Foods relocated one of its warehouses from Kansas City to Dallas. In the past, Harvesters had gotten a big chunk of excess food from the warehouse, including 485,000 pounds from July to September of last year. This year, the warehouse has given its old hometown 85,000 pounds, or less than a fifth of its old amount.

Also, America's Second Harvest, a national food bank, changed how it distributes food to local food banks so they have equal chance of getting supplies. That affected Harvesters, which had counted on getting first crack at donations from national donors in the area.

From July to September this year, Harvesters received 410,000 pounds of food, less than half the 1 million pounds it received a year ago.

On top of those two setbacks, Harvesters and food banks across the country are having to wrestle with the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which has both damaged old donors and dried up the resources for new ones.

For example, Siebert said Harvesters used to get shelf-stable milk from Diversified Foods in New Orleans. That company was hit by Katrina and the organization is trying to find a new supplier.

"We take what is waste or excess in the food supply," she said. "But because some of that has been destroyed, it is not being donated."

Harvesters isn't alone. The St. Louis Area Foodbank said it typically gets one-third of its supplies from the national food bank but has seen donations from the food bank shrink 28 percent in September compared to a year ago.

In addition, the group fears Katrina has tapped much of the public's willingness and ability to donate for the holidays. Some groups are already asking churches and community organizations to help take up the slack.

Sandra Dixon, a board member of the Southern Platte Emergency Assistance Center, said her agency is so worried about declining food donations that it may discontinue its voucher program and use its money to buy food.

Bob Balla of the Overland Park-based Village Church Food Pantry and Clothes Closet said he has to pay 33 cents per pound of food in the retail market, versus paying Harvesters between 15 and 21 cents.

"If Harvesters gets less, I get less," he said.

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