Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Severe state cuts could leave food banks' cupboards bare

Severe state cuts could leave food banks' cupboards bare

by Valerie Faciane

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Representatives of food banks across Louisiana expected the state to cut their financing this year, but they never dreamed their budgets would be slashed by 90 percent -- especially when the need for provisions is increasing.

The blow has left them scrambling.

No matter how much they try to tighten their belts, food banks will have to turn away many hungry people, said Natalie Jayroe, president and chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, one of five food banks in the state affiliated with Feeding America.


The food banks shared $5 million a year in state financing in 2007 and 2008 that was used to purchase 9 million pounds of nutritious food, providing 7 million meals a year to struggling families, Jayroe said.

This year, the groups will share a total of $500,000 in state money, which reduces their buying power to 1 million pounds of food, she said. The relief groups didn't face any ill will from Gov. Bobby Jindal or legislators, but like other constituencies, they were "swept up in bigger cuts," Jayroe said.

Even if drives to raise private contributions and food donations are successful, there is little chance of offsetting more than a third of the impact of the cuts, Jayroe said.

She said the food banks aren't the only ones affected by the budget cuts. The food the groups buy comes from Louisiana farmers and vendors.

One vendor affected by the cuts, Richard Thomas, president of Gonzales-based Blue Runner Foods, said that while a decline in commodity purchases will be felt in the business community, he is more alarmed by the impact on needy families.

"I don't know what 7 million meals did last year for the kids and elderly, but it won't be there this year," said Thomas, whose company also donates goods to the banks. "I don't think you'll see that get picked up by somebody else."

The reduced availability of food for donation is unnerving for Janie Young, a resource worker at First Evangelist Housing Community Development, a group in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood that distributes goods from the food banks. Her group provides free food on a regular basis to at least 300 families and sees at least 30 new ones -- some from outside Orleans Parish -- each month.

"We won't be able to give food to people, or we'll have to divide things," she said.

The state reduction also means it will be harder for the food banks to be able to put aside water and food supplies for emergencies such as evacuations, Jayroe said.

The food bank didn't always receive state money.

Food banks around the country saw their stocks dramatically reduced in 2005 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture decreased their food allocations because of rising food costs.

Louisiana's food banks weren't affected much in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina because they received an outpouring of support from organizations, foundations and food banks from around the country, Jayroe said.

It was after that unusual support began to disappear in 2007 that Louisiana food banks appealed to the Legislature for help. They were granted $5 million in 2007 and again in 2008 from the state's supplemental budget.

This year, "we knew that things were going to be very different and that the budget was going to be cut," Jayroe said. "So we went up and made the best case that we could that our programs met all of the governor's requirements for NGO (nongovernmental organization) funding."

The state support was virtually eliminated anyway.

Now, the food banks will simply work to make up for the losses. Annual food drives sponsored by schools, letter carriers, the New Orleans Hornets, New Orleans Saints and businesses are more important than ever, Jayroe said.

She said the food banks are always grateful for donations of time, food and money.

For more information on how to help Second Harvest, call 504.734.1322 or log on to no-hunger.org.

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