State Officials Throw Food Banks a Lifeline
After months of struggling with reduced funding and increased demand, food banks around North Carolina will get some assistance from state government.
By Rose Hoban
Cindy Sink usually doesn’t give out food from her business office at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.
Her organization’s approach to aiding hungry families is to take fresh food to communities where hunger is prevalent and set up mobile markets at churches and community centers where folks in need can “shop” without paying anything.
But recently, people have been showing up at Sink’s agency offices asking for help.
“We don’t have a system where people come here and pick up food,” Sink said. “But people have been doing just that: showing up here and asking.
“So we scramble and put together a box of food” for the 10 to 15 people who appear at their door weekly looking for assistance.
Sink said demand for food aid at her agency, based in Raleigh, has jumped about 50 percent since the beginning of the year.
That’s why she was thrilled when she heard Monday that state officials have found extra state funds to help support food banks and other feeding programs that have been battered by the economy, new state policies and, most recently, the federal shutdown.
At a press conference in Charlotte, Gov. Pat McCrory said his administration was making an additional $750,000 available to help support the seven regional food banks that are part of the North Carolina Association of Feeding America Food Banks.
Later in the day Monday, Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that his office was providing $2 million collected by the N.C. Dept. of Justice from settlements against food and pharmaceutical companies.
The seven regional food banks partner with more than 2,700 smaller agencies throughout the state, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, delivery programs, Meals On Wheels and other programs feeding low-income people.
The state money comes on top of a half-million-dollar donation made by Food Lion last week.
“It was pretty exciting to see the different cabinet secretaries there reacting to our needs,” Alan Briggs, head of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks, said Monday, referring to Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Aldona Wos and Department of Public Safety Sec. Frank Perry, who joined McCrory for the announcement.
State budget director Art Pope was also present for the press conference.
During an interview in September, Briggs described the forces buffeting food banks as a “perfect storm.” He said the combination of local budget cuts and the new cuts to unemployment insurance approved by the state General Assembly that went into effect on July 1 meant food banks were seeing increased demand at the same time they had fewer resources.
He said the bumpy rollout of the new NC FAST system was also hurting food banks. The new computer system is intended to streamline applications for entitlement programs and verify applicants’ eligibility for benefits.
But the system has had multiple problems, with many counties reporting difficulty enrolling recipients and completing applications. The problems have resulted in some applicants waiting weeks, sometimes months, to be accepted into the program, delaying their ability to get assistance through the federal-state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps).
“We’re running into counties that are experiencing 60-to-90-day delays in client applications,” Briggs said in September. “The only assistance now that state and county workers can offer is to give the number of the local food bank.”
All told, he said food banks in his network have reported a 15 percent uptick in demand over the prior year for the period between July 1 and Oct. 1.
On Monday, Briggs said the closure of the federal government had added another layer of difficulty onto food banks, further stretching resources. He said some locations have had to cut back on operating hours, some have restricted the amount of food made available to recipients on a given day and others have tightened limits on how much food a recipient can receive in a month.
“If I was a referee and this was a football game, I’d pull the yellow hankie from my pocket and call a penalty for piling on,” Briggs said.
He said since the federal shutdown began on Oct. 1, feeding programs have also seen disruptions in checks for the Women, Infants and Children food program, changes in reimbursements and drop-offs in commodity support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re seeing shipments delayed and delays in delivery, and we’d been advised we weren’t going to be reimbursed on the overhead,” said Briggs of the USDA commodity supports.
He said that for some food banks, those commodities are 20 percent to 30 percent of their supply.
“That’s been a big hit, depending on the size and location of the food banks,” Briggs said.
But he celebrated the fact that state officials showed some awareness of the issues and were taking steps to help his members deal with problems. In many locations, the extra funds will allow food bank managers to purchase extra supplies up front.
“Usually, we’d look at use and allocation of funds for the coming year and continue holding back” to avoid running out of money by the end of the fiscal year in June, Briggs explained.
“But now we can front-load, knowing that additional sources of money will be available over and above the $3 million that the legislature appropriated in the budget,” he said.
Cover photo of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle mobile market. Photo courtesy IFFS.