Recession Eats Into Food Bank Initiatives as Demand Grows

food bank truck on street tosbanner Recession Eats Into Food Bank Initiatives as Demand GrowsThe Food Bank For New York City is facing a food shortage this holiday season at the same time that demand for its services is spiking, according to its executives.

"Our shelves are empty," said Gregory Boroff, the food bank’s vice president for external relations. "I’ve been here for seven years and I’ve never seen it like this."

December is usually the Food Bank’s best month for cash donations, but this year the 25-year-old organization is feeling the pinch. Food contributions from individuals are roughly 25 percent lower than expected, and direct mailing donations are off by 14 percent. Moreover, at the Food Bank’s Community Kitchen in Harlem, there’s been a roughly 30 percent increase in visitors.

The downturn has been a double whammy: more mouths to feed and fewer donations to feed them with.

Corporations and foundations have tried to step in to fill the breach. Robin Hood, a poverty-fighting nonprofit based in New York, recently offered to match all individual donations two-to-one up to $2 million, for a total of $3 million. That money is specifically earmarked for extra food, above and beyond what’s been budgeted for the fiscal year, which ends in June 2009. Because every dollar donated to the Food Bank generates five meals, the fundraising effort could mean an additional 15 million meals for those in need.

But that may not be enough: Mr. Boroff said that even though the food bank has no plans to cut services, it needs to raise a total of $9 million in individual donations to make its budget.

The Food Bank has an annual budget of $61 million, according to its 2007 tax filings, and almost 90 percent of donations come in the form of non-cash contributions, which is mostly food. Distributing the more than 60 million pounds of food it collects annually from government, wholesalers, food manufacturers and individuals costs the Food Bank $45 million a year. The food is delivered to more than 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries scattered throughout all five boroughs.

Just this week, the Food Bank released a report saying that half of New York City residents have trouble affording basic food necessities, more than double the number five years ago. The rise in need isn’t just traceable to the recent crisis, although the massive layoffs on Wall Street haven’t helped much.

"These offices are made up of people that get the mail and clean," Mr. Boroff said. "They’re the people most at risk."

Mr. Boroff also thinks the real impact of the layoffs hasn’t been felt yet. The Food Bank’s report found that a quarter of New Yorkers wouldn’t be able to afford groceries after a sudden loss in income, and that almost half don’t have enough money saved up to last more than three months without a job.

"What’s going to be really interesting to watch is the next few months, when unemployed people are going to be in a really serious situation," he said.

One of Mr. Boroff’s main concerns is that many people in need don’t realize the Food Bank is available to help them. "I picture people looking at a pile of bills and not knowing they can get food assistance," he said.