Tags:Asheville's MANNA FoodBank has always had a tough time stocking enough provisions to supply the various relief agencies it serves across Western North Carolina. But the current jump in food prices is creating an unprecedented crisis, Executive Director Kitty Schaller reports.
"We can't get over it. Particularly in the last month, it's just [been] dramatic," she says. "I think people are scared. ... There is terror about it now. People are really, literally, making choices [between food and other essentials] and saying, 'I'm sorry kids, we're having a snack tonight for dinner, because Daddy had to put gas in the car.' And that really is the way it is."
MANNA and the more than 325 agencies it supplies with food aren't the only ones seeing the effects of rising food prices firsthand. Ann Lunsford, who supervises the food-stamp unit at the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, says her 24 caseworkers are swamped by the exploding need for food assistance. Thankfully, the county commissioners recently approved hiring two new employees -- the first new hires in nearly five years, she says.
"We take applications every day, all day long," says Lunsford. Each caseworker handles about 400 client households -- nearly twice the target load. Most other caseworkers statewide average about 275, she notes. "We're overwhelmed."
The caseload, says Lunsford, typically decreases once tax refunds start arriving. Federal economic-stimulus payments, due to be mailed out beginning in May, should also provide a temporary breather.
A record 9,219 Buncombe County households -- comprising 18,634 people -- are now receiving food stamps (an average of $100 to $125 a month for a working family of four). That's up from 6,063 households (13,352 total recipients) five years ago. The department, says Lunsford, is adding a staggering 100 new cases each month.
But even that is only scratching the surface, she notes. Due to the stigma of food stamps and the common perception that they aren't eligible or that the assistance is not enough to warrant applying, only slightly more than half of the 34,170 eligible county residents are actually enrolled. And despite the enormous workload, Lunsford urges all eligible people to take advantage of what the federal government has promised them.
Empty wallets, empty bellies
Not surprisingly, the working poor with children and elderly people on fixed incomes are being hit hardest. Now, however, even more affluent households are starting to feel the pinch, as evidenced by an upswing in business at local discount grocers such as ALDI and Amazing Savings.
Food prices began climbing last year, with spikes not seen since 1980. In the past six months, prices have risen an average of 5.5 percent. And according to America's Second Harvest, which oversees the nation's food-bank network, they're projected to rise 7.5 percent annually for the next five years. That's triple the inflation rate for 2002 through 2006.
"While the precise yearly levels of food inflation are difficult to predict, increased commodity prices clearly suggest that food prices will be rising more dramatically during the next five years," the group reported recently.
Nationwide, the number of people seeking food at pantries and kitchens has shot up 20 percent in the past year, says Second Harvest. Some pantries haven't been able to handle the demand, and some have temporarily closed because their shelves are picked clean.
In addition to higher fuel costs, a chief culprit is increased production of corn-based ethanol, which has caused the price of corn -- a key ingredient in a massive array of processed foods and drinks -- to soar to about $6 per bushel after averaging $2.40 per bushel for three decades. Higher corn prices also boost the cost of feeding livestock, especially cattle.
As a result, most food-stamp recipients will run through their monthly allowance in about two weeks. Then they go to food pantries such as those serviced by MANNA to carry them through the month.
Nationwide, the number of people on food stamps grew from 21.2 million in 2003 to 26.5 million in 2007, with an increase of 1.3 million in the past year alone, according to the Department of Agriculture. That figure is expected to swell to a record 28 million this year.
With help from Lunsford's department, MANNA is stationing volunteers at member agencies in Buncombe and Haywood counties to sign people up for food stamps. "Almost two-thirds of the people who visit these agencies ... do not apply for food stamps," says Schaller -- which further strains these agencies.
Another local program, MANNAbundance, puts food into the backpacks of about 1,200 mostly elementary-school children in Buncombe and Haywood each week before they leave for the weekend. "So many kids go home to almost no food," Schaller explains.
Meanwhile, she and other hunger-prevention advocates are lobbying for passage of the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007 (commonly called the Farm Bill), which Schaller says should be called the Food Bill, since it would boost the availability of local produce in schools and index food stamps for inflation, among many other things. A House/Senate conference committee that includes Rep. Heath Shuler is hammering out a final version of the long-delayed, controversial bill.
"More than two-thirds of it is for funding [nutrition] -- not for farm subsidies, not for conservation and forestry," says Schaller. "It is for hungry people."
• EcoBuilders goes platinum: No, the local green-building firm didn't sell a million copies of its latest album; it has achieved something more significant and rare. A house partly built by The EcoBuilders for ABC TV's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in New Orleans has received platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. That makes it one of only 10 homes in the United States to earn the U.S. Green Building Council's highest honor.
EcoBuilders owner Rob Moody says his firm oversaw the home's green features, coordinated installation of electrical, plumbing and HVAC, and supervised paints and finishes.
"We consistently build silver and gold NC HealthyBuilt homes, but this one was different," Moody explains. "Building a home for three New Orleans families displaced by Katrina was a labor of love for everyone who worked to make it a reality, and the Platinum LEED certification was just icing on the cake." You can check out the home on the show's Sunday, May 18 broadcast.
• Indulge your inner geek: Chances are you've heard of ERC Broadband, the nonprofit Internet nexus linking the educational and research community in WNC and Upstate South Carolina. Created by former Rep. Charles Taylor, the group will hold an open house Wednesday, May 7, to celebrate its fifth anniversary. Tours will be given from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at ERC headquarters in Suite 300 of the Federal Building, 151 Patton Ave. in Asheville. To get on the guest list, call 350-2415 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Are you worthy?: Over the years, the annual T. Kennon Roberson Award has recognized a handful of local heavyweight nonprofit managers: Toby Ives, MANNA FoodBank; Lew Kraus, Habitat for Humanity; Celeste Collins, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of WNC; Jim Barrett, Pisgah Legal Services; and Holly Jones, YWCA. Think your manager has what it takes? Contact Collins at email@example.com, or Harriette Winner at 252-0716 for details and a nomination form. The award recognizes contributions of professional managers in nonprofit health and human-services organizations in Buncombe County. Winners should "exhibit loyalty, integrity, effective management, at least 10 years of employment with the organization, leadership among peers and collaborative service to the community," notes Collins. Deadline is Friday, May 9.