Donations to the Vermont Foodbank have dropped precipitously this year, while the demand it services continues to climb. The Foodbank is $700,000 short of its fundraising goal, and it faces this challenge at a time when charitable food programs are bracing themselves for the impact of “fiscal cliff” cuts.
Foodbank CEO John Sayles said the shortfall is surprising. “I haven’t seen this before. Looking back at the history of our funding, we’ve seen increases really every year for the last 26 years.”
Seventy percent of the Foodbank’s $5 million budget comes from donations by individuals or Vermont-based foundations. These contributions surged after the recession and in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy, but they have been petering out in recent months, Sayles said.
The bulk of Foodbank donations come in between October and December, but this year hasn’t seen the typical influx. “We really weren’t concerned until recently … it’s not unusual to have a couple months or a quarter that are slow, but this looks significant.”
This decline is especially troubling given that it coincides with a rise in the number of Vermonters who rely on charitable food programs, Sayles said. “One of the reasons the Foodbank needs to raise this money is because the need for charitable food is still increasing. The economy has not improved enough … there is always something that has to give and most often, it’s the food budget …”
The Vermont Foodbank partners with 280 “hunger relief agencies” — these include food shelves, food pantries, daycare centers, and senior centers — to provide emergency food assistance to about 86,000 Vermonters. The USDA estimates that 12.4 percent of Vermonters, or 34,000 households, are food insecure.
In 2009, the federal stimulus law funneled $100 million worth of food into food banks across the country. That extra support has since ended, and the Vermont Foodbank now sits on a thinner federal cushion than ever.
The Vermont Foodbank budget relies on $350,000 from the federal government and $83,000 from the state government. These funding streams have stayed steady, but the amount of surplus food the Foodbank gets from the USDA was pared by 40 percent this year.
As part of the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), the USDA purchases surplus fruits, vegetables and meats to prop up food prices when demand wanes and distributes them to food banks. But with international demand on the rise and reductions in supply due to drought, food prices have been robust. This means less federally purchased surplus food for the Vermont Foodbank, Sayles explained. And, adding to the insecurity, Sayles said, is that fact that EFAP is a component of the Farm Bill, set to expire at the end of the year.
What would an underfunded Foodbank look like? Depending on how much of a shortfall it faces at year’s end, it could mean scaling programs like the Backpack Program, which provides food to children through schools, and the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals to children in low-income communities during the summer. The Foodbank has been making plans to lease space in Rutland to improve service to the southern region of the state, but it may have to put this project on hold, Sayles said. And, he added, if the fundraising shortfall is drastic, it may have to make staffing changes.
The Vermont Foodbank accepts one-time and sustaining donations through its website http://www.vtfoodbank.org; it also accepts stock gifts.