NEWS

Local food pantries feel the pinch

Hilary Smith

As they do every year at this time, local food pantries are struggling to ensure they stay stocked with healthy food. Energy costs, gifts and other seasonal expenses squeeze already-strapped household budgets upstate.

The problem was underscored last week by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who publicized figures indicating that roughly 300,000 — or 10 percent — of upstate households are “food insecure,” meaning they have inconsistent access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

Schumer said he is pushing legislation that would require federal-government buildings — for instance, in Ontario County, those on the VA campus —  to deliver their excess food to food pantries.

As it stands now, many food cupboards receive assistance from federal programs, and the state-run Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, or HPNAP, helps to fill in the gaps when federal assistance isn’t enough. Still, many food pantries are reporting “empty shelves and budget crises,” said Schumer.

According to his report, which includes information from the U.S. Census, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Health, the Rochester-Finger Lakes region — which includes Ontario, Wayne and Yates counties — has 47,795 “food insecure” households. In the 2005-06 year, HPNAP-funded food pantries in the region served an estimated 5,142,810 meals — 284,497 in Ontario County, 206,391 in Wayne and 121,203 in Yates.

Client lists at local food cupboards have expanded dramatically this year. The Hope and Life Pantry (HELP) at Crosswinds Downtown in Canandaigua served 190 families last month and assisted a record 24 families within one three-hour period last Thursday. The shelves at HELP are pretty well-stocked, thanks to a recent food drive, but the cupboard definitely has its lean times throughout the year, said Crosswinds office manager Tammy Clarke.

The number of food recipients has been high all year in Phelps and throughout the fall in Naples, and both food cupboards are experiencing their typical “holiday boom” of clients.

In order to make the best use of limited resources, some food cupboards require recipients to show proof that their yearly income falls beneath a given level. Others just ask clients to show a piece of identification. It isn’t easy to ask for help, so the assumption is that those who come to the food cupboard are truly in need, said Phelps Community Food Cupboard Director Beverley Cheney.

Rosalie Peck, director of the Naples Open Cupboard, added that circumstances like high gasoline and home-heating costs can stretch families’ budgets to the limit, even though their incomes might look adequate on paper.

Some pantries, like the Phelps Community Food Cupboard, limit their services to needy families who live in their area. The Phelps cupboard also cross-checks its client lists with the nearby St. Felix Community Food Cupboard to try to make sure that clients don’t double up on food assistance. Other food cupboards, like HELP in Canandaigua, accept clients regardless of their residency. In the case of a food emergency, most area-specific cupboards will still help an out-of-town client, eventually referring him or her to a more local agency.

But simple aid is not enough. The most economical and frequently donated foods are not always the healthiest choices. Canned and boxed goods are often filled with sugar, fat and preservatives, and those who accept food donations have to choose wisely off pantry shelves in order to build nutritious meals.

“An occasional macaroni and cheese is not going to cause obesity,” said Ontario County Public Health Educator Alice Robeson. But a diet too heavy in refined carbohydrates — the kind that are in white bread, white pasta and processed snacks — can lead to obesity and diabetes, she said.

Robeson said there are better, healthier versions of most of the goods that frequently land on food cupboards’ shelves. She suggested that people donate low-sodium soups, fruit canned in water rather than syrup, tuna canned in water rather than oil, whole-wheat or high-protein pastas and cereals and low-fat evaporated milk.

 Some food cupboards try to supplement canned and boxed goods with fresh meat, eggs, milk and produce, but such add-ons are costly, said Cheney.

Schumer’s legislation would allow federal agency buildings, military bases and military contractors to donate the excess food from their cafeterias to local food cupboards. The senator estimated that thousands of tons of food would be donated each year as a result. The Canandaigua VA Medical Center would be eligible to donate its extra food, as would Rochester’s Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building and Federal Aviation Administration building, and Army and Air National Guard facilities in Geneseo, Geneva and Rochester.

The bill would also create the position of U.S. coordinator of food security, an overseer of nationwide food donation efforts.

 In addition to the Senate, the bill will be submitted to the House of Representatives “with suspension.” That means debate will be limited to 20 minutes and a 2/3 majority will be required to pass the measure. Schumer said he hopes the bill’s non-controversial nature will help it to pass in the last weeks of the Congressional session.

Contact Hilary Smith at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343 or at hsmith@mpnewspapers.com.