Demand up, supplies down at food banks, Congress hears

In Atlanta, food donations to charities from manufacturers and retailers are down more than 35 percent, John Stephenson, executive director of the philanthropic group J. Bulow Campbell Foundation, told a U.S. House panel.

Demand at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, meanwhile, was up 54 percent in September from a year earlier and 24 percent in October. At times, the food bank's typical six-week inventory of commodities has declined to day-to-day levels, Stephenson said.

"In my 25 years serving these foundations, there has never been a business cycle, recession or even the national crisis of 9/11 that compares to the breadth and depth and length of the economic impact the current recession has had on the citizenry of Georgia," Stephenson told lawmakers at the House Ways and Means subcommittee meeting. His group provides funding to the Atlanta food bank and other charities in Georgia and surrounding states.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat who chaired Thursday's congressional hearing, said the recession has caused hunger to spread from those living in poverty to middle-class families and an increasing number of children and seniors.

"One week from today, many of us will sit down at a table full of food and give thanks for what we have, but far too many people will not," Lewis said. "In a nation that has so much, this is not right. It is not just. It is not fair. We can and we must find a way to do better."

Several bills pending in the House could amend tax laws to make it easier and more beneficial to donate to food banks and other charities.

Proposed legislation would extend and expand deductions that businesses could take for their contributions to food banks, reduce taxes on private charity foundations and also expand a program that lets holders of individual retirement accounts make greater tax-free distributions to charities.

Republicans at the hearing blamed the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress for the rise in hunger and added strain on food banks.

"We see yet another consequence of the failure of the Democrats' so-called stimulus legislation," said Republican U.S. Rep. John Linder of Duluth. Simply put, if the stimulus were working and creating ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,' as (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi put it, more people would be donating to food banks instead of seeking help from them.

"We will never be able to adequately treat the symptom of greater need at food banks until we cure the disease of rising unemployment," Linder said.

Partisanship aside, there's little doubt that more Americans are hungry and in need of assistance.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that nearly 15 percent of American households -- and nearly a fourth of the nation's children -- struggled at least part of last year to get enough food because of lack of money or other reasons.

The prevalence of what the USDA calls "food insecurity" was at the highest level since the agency began tracking food shortages 14 years ago.

Georgia ranked fourth in food insecurity between 2006-2008, according to the USDA study. Only Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas ranked worse.

Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, found in a September survey that 99 percent of food banks reported increases in demand for emergency food assistance. About 78 percent of food banks surveyed said they had to reduce the amount of food provided and 55 percent had to turn people away in the last year.

At United Way, the nation's largest privately funded charity, overall assistance requests increased by 40 percent last year, according to United Way Worldwide CEO Brian Gallagher.

And at Catholic Charities USA, 76 percent of its offices nationwide reported increased demand for food in the third quarter of this year, Candy Hill, senior vice president of the group, told members of Congress.

While the agency used to serve the poor and homeless, today it serves formerly middle-class families and in some cases, people who used to be donors to Catholic Charities and even some of its former local board members.

"These are our neighbors, our former colleagues and hardworking individuals that are struggling to make ends meet," Hill said.

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