By Joseph Robertia
Gas prices are rising. Employment is down. Not even the support networks established to help people during hard times are immune to economic problems.
“We’re seeing more people, and the member agencies we provide for are seeing more people, but donations from local businesses are down,” said Linda Swarner, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
The nonprofit relies on donations, disseminating the goods they are given to people in need, from single or young parents struggling to provide for their kids, to those who have been laid off and are finding it difficult to make ends meet, to those who have been diagnosed with cancer or other unforeseen medical ailments for which the cost of treatment was not in their budget.
“The numbers we’re providing for are growing,” Swarner said.
A few years ago, she said a typical February brought in 1,449 people looking for supplemental food, while for the same month last year that number rose by more than 200.
“In February 2011 we saw 1,675 people come in,” she said.
Adding to this situation, the amount of food being provided has gone down substantially. While a few years ago the food bank distributed 83,185 pounds of food in February, for that same month this year they were only able to provide 74,367 pounds of food. That’s nearly 9,000 pounds less.
Part of the problem stems from the exhaustion of President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funding provided to the food bank through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Program.
“We had gotten an influx of 30 percent more food to distribute from the stimulus, but that’s gone now, so people that were getting that 30 percent more are now going to church pantries to get that food,” Swarner said.
Another factor affecting the food bank’s donations is that businesses have begun ordering less food and stretching what they get between orders, rather than having too much food product left over — which was donated to the food bank — at the end of the week or month.
“As businesses look at their bottom line, they may not have as much food on their shelves, which means less for us, too,” Swarner said.
Some food providers have also gone out of business during these tough economic times. News announced the manufacturer of the Twinkies went out of business, but the golden, cream-filled sweet isn’t the only product they made.
“Interstate, which made Twinkies and Wonder Bread, was one of the major bakeries that provided bread to us, but since they’ve declared bankruptcy, our bread supplies have been affected,” Swarner said.
Lifestyle changes related to healthy living also add to the problem. As more people attempt to eat fresh foods, groceries stores have changed their supplies to meet this demand.
“There have been big changes to food processing,” Swarner said. “There is more food that is perishable than canned or dried, so that shorter shelf life affects us, too.”
To balance the numbers, the food bank has reduced the amount of food available per consumer to stretch their food-providing capacity.
“In order to make sure all agencies have an equal opportunity to get the food available, we’ve decided to limit the amount per visit so everyone has a share,” Swarner said.
Need is need, though, so the food bank is working to bring in more food for those who rely on it.
“Fortunately we’ve had some great food drives. In February and March Jumpin’ Junction challenged area schools to see who could donate the most pounds of food,” Swarner said. “We also got a $16,000 grant from Wells Fargo, which we are grateful for, but that won’t buy that many pallets of food, so we still need to do more,” she said.
In addition to business sponsorship, the food bank also is requesting individual donations of canned goods.
“Specifically, we need protein items, such as peanut butter, tuna, SPAM, beans, that kind of thing,” Swarner said. “As people begin planting their gardens, we also encourage people to plant a row for the hungry, so that we can have fresh vegetables to give or serve in our Fireweed Diner.”
The food bank is selling tickets to its Chefs of the Night fundraiser April 21. This black tie-optional event will feature hors d’oeuvres, salad, entrée and dessert, as well as libations provided by Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop and Bear Creek Winery. Tickets, of which only 100 are available, are on sale for $150. The food bank also is looking for volunteers to help with the annual Soup, Supper and Auction fundraiser Aug. 18.
Swarner said the institution is committed to sticking to its mission statement.
“We feed because no one deserves to be hungry,” she said.