Second Harvest: Donations are up, demand is up more

Cathy Maes, executive director of the Minnetonka-based Intercongregation Communities Association (ICA), said her food shelf struggled to get breakfast cereal from the food bank anymore. She wasn’t sure why.

I met Maes at a November Hunger Solutions Minnesota conference. I made a note to myself to follow up on the cereal shortage. Then my reporter brain started spinning. Headline: “Rising grain prices, ethanol, fuel food-shelf cereal shortage.” Or perhaps, “Cereal donations dive with economy.”

Turns out, cereal donations are at an all-time high, said Jon Guy, vice president of communications and advancement at Second Harvest Heartland, the food bank where ICA buys a lot of its food. Problem is, demand is growing faster than supply.

“Pure and simple, our support both in cash and food donations has never been higher,” Guy said. “It is up dramatically. It is not a supply issue. It can get confusing.”

Guy said while food donations have increased by approximately 20 percent compared to a year ago, the food shelves are saying their demand is up 25 percent or more. “The story is the demand is unbelievable,” he said.

Cross docking
Rick Len, ICA’s food buyer and food room manager, said the food shelf tries to put breakfast cereal in every food bag. People want it; it’s something kids can fix for themselves. Cereal availability has always tended to go in cycles. “In the past it hasn’t dried up like it has in the past three to four months,” he said.

At Second Harvest, Guy said for the last six months, cereal has been “cross docked.” That means the cereal is in such demand that they don’t bother putting it on the shelves. A truck brings the cereal in, it gets unloaded in one dock and moved to another dock and sent out on the next available truck.

“I just looked at the inventory sheet and we don’t have cereal in the warehouse right now,” Guy said. “We will get a truckload tomorrow.”

Donated food inventories tend to run lowest in the summer when kids are out of school. During the rest of the year, school breakfast and lunch programs reduce food-shelf demand. ICA’s Len said the cereal supply seems to be getting better. But demand continues to grow.

By the numbers
Last month, Hunger Solutions released its analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food insecurity report. It said Minnesota food-shelf visits have increased 11 percent during the first six months of 2008 (and visits have increased 67 percent since 2000).

In 2007, there were nearly 2 million visits to Minnesota food shelves, and people left with more than 47 million pounds of food. (That’s the equivalent of more than nine pounds of groceries for every Minnesota resident.)

In addition, food-stamp use is rising as a result of increased joblessness, falling wages and rising food costs, Hunger Solutions said. Food-stamp participation in Minnesota increased 5.3 percent from August 2007 to August 2008.

The problem is hitting every part of the state. ICA serves Minnetonka, Hopkins, Excelsior, Deephaven, Shorewood, Greenwood and Woodland. Len said demand has been increasing by around 10 percent a month. Earlier this summer, the ICA food bank was giving out 40,000 pounds a month. In October, it gave out 68,000 pounds.

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