At Union College, a big brown patch of dirt has been dug from the lawn between Wells House and McKean House.
It’s the site of the college’s first vegetable garden, which will be planted in two weeks with tomatoes, green peppers, jalapeno peppers, butternut squash and asparagus. Half the produce will go to the organic cafe on campus and half to the food pantry run by Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
“It’s almost ready to go,” said Connie Schmitz, horticulture and landscape specialist in Union College’s facilities services department, as she surveyed the ground that was recently rototilled by volunteers.
Projects such as the Union College vegetable garden strive to make healthier food more available to lower-income people. The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York operates the Patroon Land Farm in Knox; most of the produce is distributed to the hungry. And last year, the Capital District Community Gardens launched its Veggie Mobile, which delivers fresh produce to the poor.
Yet even as awareness of the benefits of eating organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables increases, rising food prices, declining budgets and growing demand are making it harder for food pantries to stock healthier food. Many pantries are giving out smaller packages and cheaper, less healthy food as they look for ways to stretch their budgets.
“Pantries are replicating what’s happening at the household level,” said Linda Schuyler, executive director of Food Pantries for the Capital District, which serves pantries in Albany and Rensselaer counties. “They’re giving out a little less. They’re buying more of what’s cheaper. What people are getting is more empty calories.” As more people make dietary compromises, problems like obesity and juvenile diabetes will increase, she said.
“Really good, highly nutritious food is a lot more expensive,” Schuyler said. “We fight for it all the time. That’s what we want to be doing. That’s what we need to be doing. We’re trying to buck the trend of feeding people empty calories, but it’s an uphill battle and in the last six months it’s gotten steeper.”
Food stamps provide about $3 a day for food. “If someone is relying on food stamps, fresh produce is not going to make the cut,” she said. “You’re going to buy hot dogs and Ramen noodles and hope that tomorrow you can do better. It must be really frustrating for people to be told to eat whole grains, and it’s $2 more than the poofy stuff.”
In the Capital Region, food pantries rely heavily on the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, based in Latham. When the time comes to order food, the pantries first visit the Regional Food Bank Web site to see what government commodities are available, because government commodities are free. But in the past few years, the variety of commodities available has diminished greatly.
“If you go back two or three years, there would be two pages of stuff,” Schuyler said. “Now there will be four or five things.” This means pantries are forced to purchase more food.
“The food we get through the United States Department of Agriculture is far less than a few years ago, and the biggest impact has been on good food,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. At the same time, the organization’s federal food budget has shrunk. During the first half of the year, the Regional Food Bank received a $400,000 grant to purchase food; that grant was halved for the second half of the year. Meanwhile, prices are skyrocketing.
A year ago, the Regional Food Bank could order canned beans for $7.38 a case, or $11,900 a truckload; those same beans now cost $10.22 a case or $16,500 a truckload. Last year rice cost $12.93 a case, or $11,350 a truckload; now rice costs $16.75 a case, or $14,700 a truckload.
Sue Lintner, director of agency and program services for the Regional Food Bank, said she’s been ordering less expensive items as a result. “I’m trying to stretch the money,” she said. “I’m trying to get the biggest bang for the buck.” The agency has cut back on peanut butter, which cost $27,000 a load last year, but now costs $41,000. “Last year I ordered two loads of it,” she said. “It’s a hot commodity. Now I’m not ordering any peanut butter.”
Megan Quillinan, executive director of the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center, said it’s much tougher to buy healthy food for MACSC’s food pantry. “We’re buying more hot dogs than chicken,” she said. “Produce has become a luxury. You want to have enough food to make a meal.” In the seven years Quillinan has worked at the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center, the amount of federal aid the agency receives has dropped from $3,000 to about $1,600, even as demand has risen.
“We’re thinking more about how much quantity we can get as opposed to quality,” Quillinan said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service forecasts that the Consumer Price Index for all food will increase 4 to 5 percent this year, as retailers pass on higher commodity and energy costs to consumers in the form of higher retail prices. The CPI for food increased 4 percent in 2007, the highest annual increase since 1990, according to the agency.
The Schenectady Inner City Ministry is still providing the same number of meals it always has, but has cut back on extras. Food donations are also down, as everyone struggles with a slumping economy and inflation. Some commodity foods — foods that the federal government has the legal authority to purchase and distribute in order to support farm prices — have gotten a lot more expensive. Meanwhile, more people are visiting the food pantry: Demand jumped 27 percent in 2007, and was up 41 percent during the first several months of the year.
“We are seeing more desperation,” said the Rev. Phil Grigsby, who heads the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
SICM has long offered fruits and vegetables. Donors are encouraged to grow an extra row in their garden for their pantry; the agency also receives produce from Roxbury Farm, a community supported farm in Kinderhook. Grigsby said he would like to increase the amount of produce available, but added, “It’s more difficult to do in the current economic climate.” He also said that stocking produce requires more planning. “You’ve got to think about it, and once you think about it you’ve got to have the space for it,” he said.
Gas prices are also having an effect. The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York delivers food to pantries throughout the Capital Region “The majority of food we receive is donated, but it costs more to go get it,” Quandt said. “Our trucks are on the road every day delivering food. The cost of diesel fuel is beyond anything we anticipated in the budget.”
Amy Klein, executive director of Capital District Community Gardens, believes low-income people will buy healthy food if it’s available to them at affordable prices. She said the Veggie Mobile has been a success, and plans to add new stops; some customers use food stamps to purchase fresh vegetables at wholesale prices. The agency has also seen a huge demand for its community garden plots, as people look to save money by growing their own food. CDCG also received six tons of donated produce last year through its Squash Hunger program, which asks local farmers and gardeners to donate produce that can be distributed to the poor.
“These are the types of things that we as a society need to be looking at,” Klein said. “You can’t just tell people they need to fight obesity and heart disease without thinking of more ways to give people access to healthy food.”
Mark Dunlea, associate director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State, criticized the federal government’s new farm bill, saying it supports large corporate farmers, but does nothing for smaller vegetable farmers. The bill assures growers of crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans $5 billion a year; Dunlea said he had hoped Congress would consider subsidizing fruit and vegetable farmers. “We want the government to be buying organic food,” he said.
Under the new farm bill, which supports the USDA’s food and farm programs, married couples with joint incomes of up to $1.5 million from their farms could still qualify for subsidies. Funding for food stamps and emergency domestic food assistance would increase by more than $10 billion, and a program that provides fresh fruit and vegetables to schoolchildren would also expand.
House and Senate negotiators announced a final agreement on the new $300 billion farm bill, although President Bush said he planned to veto it.