Tri-City food banks depleted

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldJune 30, 2012 

One morning this week, the Tri-Cities Food Banks location in Kennewick saw double the number of families seeking food than is normal for this time of year.

John Neill, executive director of the agency that operates food banks in Kennewick, Richland and Benton City, told the Herald that it's typical to get 50 to 60 families per day, per food bank in early summer.

But the Kennewick food bank served 112 families Tuesday. The Richland food bank served 70 families.

"That's holiday volume," Neill said. "That's the kind of volume we have the day before Thanksgiving or right before Christmas. With no food coming through the door and no food drives going on, that kind of volume depletes us."

And an already strained situation might be about to become worse, as almost 400 families in Benton and Franklin counties lose half their food stamp benefits starting Sunday under a plan to save money in the state budget.

John Wiley, a spokesman for the Department of Social and Health Services, told the Herald that the Food Assistance for Legal Immigrants Program, known as FAP, is a state-funded program for low-income people who are legal residents of the United States but haven't lived here long enough to qualify for federal food stamps.

Some other categories of legal immigrants -- such as refugees or asylum seekers -- also might qualify.

Legal residents with green cards have to live in the United States for five years to qualify for the federal program, according to eligibility requirements.

The state-funded program has 370 households enrolled in Benton and Franklin counties. The average monthly benefit statewide is $160, but amounts for each household vary depending on the household size and income level, Wiley said.

That will be cut in half starting Sunday when reductions for the 2012-13 budget year go into effect.

Neill expects that will mean more people in line at the food banks.

"It's obvious the effect it's going to have on us," he said.

People in the food stamp programs already make up part of the Tri-Cities Food Banks' clientele, usually when their benefits start to run out toward the end of the month, Neill said.

"By the third week of the month they're depleted and they come to us in droves," he said.

With benefits for those households on FAP reduced by half, chances are they'll come in earlier -- and the problem is that while demand has remained high, donations haven't kept up.

"Even the volunteers are starting to remark about it, saying, 'What are we going to do?' " Neill said. "I spent all afternoon talking to people who could put a food drive together or write us a check. It's getting to the point where we're using all our available cash to buy food right now because there is no food coming through the doors."

And food prices have increased along with gas prices, so dollars don't stretch quite as far, and grocery stores are controlling inventory more tightly so there are fewer leftovers to give to food banks, Neill said.

Some relief is on the way once harvest season starts and fresh produce starts coming in, but that won't help with things like canned goods or meat, he added.

Rick Stromberg, interim regional director of Second Harvest Tri-Cities, said he's hearing similar stories from all of the food banks Second Harvest serves.

"Demand is pretty high from almost every end user we have," Stromberg said. "All of the food banks are seeing steady lines."

Stromberg is hopeful things will improve during harvest season, but said Second Harvest is working every source it has for food or cash donations in the meantime.

"The need is steady, and we try to keep our eye on the ball and clearly in focus so we can send as much food as we possibly can to our food bank partners," he said.

To donate money or food:

w Second Harvest Tri-Cities: Second Harvest Tri-Cities, www., P.O. Box 6166, Kennewick, 99336, or call 585-3924.

w Tri-Cities Food Banks: Kennewick Food Bank, 420 Deschutes Ave., Kennewick, 99336; Richland Food Bank, 321 Wellsian Way, Richland, 99352; Benton City Food Bank, 712 10th St., Benton City, 99320.

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