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By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY
Shoppers are not the only ones feeling the squeeze of rising food prices.
Shelves are going bare in food banks and pantries as more market demand for food means the federal government is buying less fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products to give to needy families.
As a result, food banks and pantries nationwide say they are giving out less food, even as record numbers of families turn to them for help.
"It's not playing out too good for us; I'm running out of food," says Peggy Taylor, who runs the pantry at the One Accord Baptist Church in Martinsville, Va. She says the pantry serves about 500 people a month, double the number served a year ago. But, she says, the amount of government food the pantry receives has dwindled from about 200 cases of canned goods a year ago to 32.
Under a program called the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the federal government buys surplus fruit, vegetables and meats and gives the products to food banks as a bonus.
The program is based on the market, says Janey Thornton, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. When the market is flooded with certain types of foods, the department will buy them as a way to help stabilize the market and give them to food banks and other groups as a bonus, she says.
But when demand is high, as it has been over the last year, there is less need for the government to step in, she says. Growing populations worldwide have increased demand for food, while drought and severe weather have reduced the supply, leading to higher prices.
Last fiscal year, the USDA, which administers the program, bought 421 million pounds of bonus food - $235 million worth - that it gave to food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries for free last fiscal year. That's down from the year before, when they gave charities almost 500 million pounds of food, worth $347 million.
So far this year, the department has bought 129 million pounds - or $92 million - in bonus food.
Food banks will see some relief with an infusion of $170 million worth of meat the USDA will buy to help farmers hurt by the drought, Thornton says.
From 2010 through 2011, 145 out of the 202 food banks run by Feeding America saw a drop in bonus food from the government. The charities say they are relying more on donations or buying more food, but they say it's not enough to feed all of their clients.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina in Winston-Salem has seen the number of people served increase from 135,000 four years ago to 300,000 today, executive director Clyde Fitzgerald says. But the amount it receives in bonus food is down 35% this year compared with last, he says.
Its food pantries provide three days' worth of food, down from seven to 10 days historically, he says.
"The magnitude of change means that we're not able to make that up, especially with the increased need," he says. He says this year, the food bank spent $1 million to buy food.
Last year, the bonus food made up 14% of the food supply at the Southwest Virginia Food Bank, down from a third of the food it gave out two years ago, says executive director Pamela Irvine. The food bank, which serves among the poorest counties in the state, bought 856,000 pounds of food last year, compared with 307,000 pounds two years ago.
"We've had to raise more money to buy food," she says. "Agencies are struggling to find additional resources."