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Food Banks Adapt for Record Demand

Food banks facing record demand from needy Americans are testing new programs and turning to new donors to get food on their holiday tables.

Feeding America, the nation's largest network of food banks, is logging record donations - $75 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, compared with $56.1 million the year before. Its food banks distributed a record 2.6 billion pounds of food, compared with 2.2 billion pounds the previous year.

"Americans know people that are going through this problem, and they can't bear not to help them," says Vicki Escarra, president of the network, which serves 25 million people a year. "The reality is that demand is outstripping the donations, even though donations are up."

In Phoenix, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust spearheaded a new fundraising effort this year in response to unprecedented demand for safety-net services and cuts in public programs. The project brought in $1.6 million from individuals, foundations and corporations, many of whom had never given to such causes before, and about one-third went to emergency food programs, says Edmund Portnoy, director of grants programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 49 million people in the United States - about one in six - went hungry or had insufficient food at some point in 2008, according to the latest figures available. It was the highest number since the government began tracking the problem in 1995.

"Donors were seeing long lines of people waiting for food and people sleeping on the concrete at overfilled homeless shelters. It influenced their giving decisions," Portnoy said.

Food banks adapting to the increased demand include:

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.@ The food bank is devising new ways to put food on people's tables. This year, it assigned nine staff members to visit food pantries and soup kitchens specifically to help people apply for food stamps, President Dave Krepcho says. "People are going hungry, and that's a source of food," he says.

The food bank is distributing food "at disaster-relief levels," Krepcho says, as if responding to a devastating hurricane. "It's a tsunami."

Food Bank of the Rockies.@ The group, which serves northern Colorado and Wyoming, started using a software program purchased at a deep discount from UPS to manage food collection and distribution routes, says President Kevin Seggelke. The program is expected to save $50,000 in fuel costs annually, money that can be used "for more food for those in need," Seggelke says.

St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance@. St. Mary's, which serves Phoenix and northern Arizona, is seeing a surge in first-time volunteers and donors even as it is distributing nearly 50% more food this year than last, President Terry Shannon says.

Some of those donors used to give money to arts or education groups, Shannon says, but now, "they're refocusing their donations to basic needs."

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