Food Banks: Katrina Drained Aid

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After Hurricane Katrina, Americans sent waves of trucks loaded with food to the many thousands of people driven from their homes by the storm. But that generosity may have had a hidden cost.

Some hunger-relief charities in cities far from the disaster are reporting a decline in donations, largely because many contributors have been sending food to the Gulf Coast instead.

The Food Bank for New York City, which supplies 1,300 soup kitchens and food pantries, said it collected about 2.4 million pounds of food in the past four months, 1 million fewer pounds than it gathered during the same period last year.

"We are tapping into our reserves," said spokeswoman Lisa Jakobsberg. "I have not seen our shelves as empty as they are right now since 9/11."

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank said donations have declined about 12 percent.

In Milwaukee, an annual fall food drive held by a regional food bank collected 19,216 pounds of food, down from 40,594 pounds last year. One reason: Only 49 schools volunteered to be collection points, compared with 103 in 2004.

"We heard specifically from many of the schools that the reason why they weren't collecting this year was that they had already collected for Katrina victims in September," said Gina Styer, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin chapter of America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food banks.

Charity administrators said the problem is not that people are giving less.

Donations of food are up 40 percent this year to America's Second Harvest, which supports 210 food banks nationwide. Much of that increase in aid, though, has been in the form of hurricane relief, said the group's spokeswoman, Mara Daley.

Since the storm, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana has been distributing more than three times its average volume of food.

Individual donors account for only a small portion of the food served in soup kitchens and food pantries. Most comes from either the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spends more than $50 billion a year on anti-hunger programs, or in bulk donations from manufacturers, supermarket chains and other food retailers, which give excess inventory to relief agencies.

The food eventually makes its way to places like Brooklyn's Neighbors Together soup kitchen, which feeds 300 people a day from a room just big enough to hold three picnic tables and a serving counter.

Ed Fowler, the cafeteria's executive director, said it has not had any shortages. But he said that could change if the donation pattern remains unbalanced for months.

"I'd hate to be worrying about how to feed 300 people in the middle of winter," he said.

On Wednesday, as people began lining up for a lunch of chicken soup, his problem was turkeys. The kitchen had a dozen ready to go for Thanksgiving, but would be left with zero for Christmas.

Then, in a minute, the problem was solved. A van pulled up and out hopped a group of off-duty postal workers carrying an unexpected gift of a dozen frozen birds.

"This is fantastic," Fowler said. "This is the one time of the year at which people are conscious of hunger. But don't forget that we're here for 363 other days of the year, too."