PHOENIX (AP) — Cash donations and food, especially proteins, are sorely needed at metro Phoenix food banks as they struggle with a severe shortage of supplies and unchecked increase in demand.
Normally, the banks' stock of food decreases in summer and early fall, but that decrease has been exacerbated by Congress' postponement of a vote on the Farm Bill and a recent peanut-butter recall, which forced food banks to discard that crucial source of protein.
"It goes back to the summer," said Jerry Brown, spokesman for St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance. "Our warehouse was 28 to 30 percent behind on donations this year. ... But we're still distributing as many as 1,000 emergency food boxes a day out of warehouse. That's 30,000 boxes a month."
The peanut-butter recall — issued last month after the bacterium salmonella was found in samples from the Sunland factory in New Mexico — deprived St. Mary's of a main source of protein in its emergency food boxes.
"You don't have to refrigerate it, and there's a large amount of protein in a small jar," Brown said.
The food bank pulled 12,000 cases of peanut butter off the shelves and from all already-packed emergency food boxes. To make up for that loss, workers filled boxes with non-perishable food that was already in short supply, such as tuna, soup and canned fruits and vegetables.
"We were down about 50 percent in the warehouse this last week, compared to this time last year," Brown said.
St. Mary's is asking for donations of canned food, including beans, tuna, Manwich products, Spam, potatoes, fruits and vegetables.
In the meantime, it is also cutting back.
In the past, St. Mary's would put at least six cans in a food box, and that would provide a three- to four-day supply of food for a family of four. "Now, instead of six or seven cans, we're seeing about half that in the boxes," Brown said. That food is being replaced with cereal.
"Canned food is such a valuable thing because some people don't have stoves to heat food or refrigerators to cool things," he said. "Non-perishables make up the backbone of our emergency food boxes."
The Salvation Army last week turned away people seeking food at its Family Services Center in Mesa. A sign on the door said the site was out of food, but it reopened Monday as a result of a food drive sponsored by Channel 12 and Fry's food stores.
The site now has enough food to last a week, the army's Lt. Christopher Ratliff said.
In Mesa, the Salvation Army serves 300 to 400 families a week, according to Maj. Candi Frizzell.
Brown said Valley residents have been generous in their donations. A donation of $1 will buy seven meals because St. Mary's gets price breaks for buying in bulk.
He's not sure why donations are down this year. It could be donor fatigue or improving economic numbers that mislead people into thinking the need for food is not as great, he said.
Also, some previous donors are now recipients of food boxes. "We do know there are donors out there who used to give us food and money, and they're coming to the food bank to use our services," Brown said.
Besides donations from individuals, St. Mary's gets food from government programs and from 300 grocery stores in the Valley.
On Tuesday at St. Mary's in Phoenix, people began lining up an hour before it opened.
Second in line was 63-year-old Barbara Nelero, who was nibbling on a 50-cent bag of Santa Fe trail mix she bought at Walmart that she called her breakfast.
Nelero, who worked as a nursing aide in a prison infirmary, said she stretches the food to make do. "You've got to cook a lot of beans," she said, adding that although her doctor tells her to eat more chicken, tuna and turkey, the food boxes don't contain much protein.
The boxes sometimes contain chicken or eggs, but most of the time, they have evaporated or dried milk, juice, bread, elbow macaroni and a can of stew or chicken.
"I go hungry," she said, because she buys food for her four Chihuahuas. "They're the apple of my eye, those four little dogs. I buy them the cheapest dog food so they don't go hungry. ... Sometimes I'm hungry."
Picking up food Monday at the Salvation Army's Family Services Center in Mesa was James Morris, 58, who arrived on his bicycle. He is disabled with glaucoma and a degenerative bone disease.
"I came last month; they gave me a package of slices of summer sausage and a package of hamburger meat," he said.
Also waiting was Karen Parker, 70, who spends winters in Mesa and summers in Wisconsin, where she retired from a cheese-processing factory.
She receives $729 a month in Social Security, and her rent in Mesa is $427. Parker, who is taking medicine for leukemia, augments the Salvation Army food with groceries from the 99-cent store.
Her safety net is her daughter, who moved to Mesa four years ago. "I'd never go hungry, because of my daughter," she said. "A couple of weeks ago, there was a little note on my car windshield. It was a $50 food card from her."
United Food Bank in Mesa is a distribution warehouse for 250 agencies in a five-county region, including eastern Maricopa County. It supplies emergency food pantries, meal sites, residential shelters, children's after-school programs and a backpack program.
The peanut-butter recall hurt, but what has severely hurt United Food Bank is Congress' postponing a vote on the Farm Bill, which includes food-stamp and commodities programs.
"We have seen our USDA commodities reduced in 2011 and 2012 by 1.5 million pounds," said Rayna Palmer, chief operations officer. "That's a huge amount of food that has been pulled off our shelves. We have to make that up locally."
Brian Simpson, spokesman for the Association of Arizona Food Banks, said the current shortage is a gap that food banks see every year at this time, but this year is more severe.
"Demand has remained very, very high," he said.
The delay in the Farm Bill vote makes it difficult for food banks to budget because they don't know the amount of commodities they will get.
"In any given month for well over a year, Arizona has had a little more than 1.1 million individuals receiving food-stamp benefits. Almost half of those are children under age 18 or seniors," he said.
Cuts in the farm program will increase the demand on food banks, Simpson predicted. "If people see their options reduced or eliminated, it's natural they're going to look to food banks," he said. "Food banks will expect to see more people at their doorsteps."
The boxes at food banks typically are enough food for three to five days.
"It's not designed to be a semi-permanent, longer-term solution that's going help lift your household out of food insecurity," Simpson said.
He echoed the plea for donations.
"If people have the ability to donate peanut butter or other protein-rich foods, we'd be happy to hear from you," he said, adding that food banks also need cash and volunteers. help.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com