It's clear to those in charge of regional food banks and pantries that more people need their services.
Federal food stamp cuts last November are a factor, said Cindy Jandrain, coordinator of the St. Vincent de Paul pantry in Omaha. More than 1,600 clients visited in October and November, the highest number since record-keeping began in 1995.
“People were anticipating the cut,” Jandrain said. “Food's going out the door fast.”
The loss of long-term unemployment benefits at the end of last year also plays a part, said Lindsay Pingel, communications manager for the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines. More than 3,000 Iowans are feeling that pinch, she said.
Now, the U.S. farm bill that awaits Senate approval would trim an additional $800 million from the food stamp program, though it appears that Nebraska and Iowa would be spared at least initial cuts. The savings would come from changing a program that links heat and food aid in some states, and neither Nebraska nor Iowa participates in that program.
It could be several months before the U.S. Department of Agriculture sorts out how to implement food stamp cuts, said Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Regardless of the causes, however, the president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha thinks traffic there will continue to grow. For many people, including the jobless or underemployed, the recession hasn't ended.
“It's the new normal,” said Susan Ogborn. “We haven't found the ceiling for need.”
Food Bank for the Heartland, which provides goods to 325 nonprofit agencies, already has distributed nearly three times more food in the first half of the fiscal year that began in July than it did in all of 2009 and 2010, Ogborn said.
So far, supply has met need, though Ogborn said the food bank has had to place limits on products in high demand. The member agencies — pantries such as St. Vincent de Paul, homeless shelters such as the Open Door Mission and other social service groups — order goods they pick up at a warehouse near 105th and F Streets.
“We turn the warehouse totally over two times a month,” Ogborn said. “Every 20 to 25 days, it's empty, and we fill it back up.”
Most pantries, which give food directly to needy individuals and families, have guidelines about how often someone can get help and a set list of items they receive. At St. Vincent de Paul, people older than 60 can get food every 30 days, and those younger than 60 can get help every 60 days. But everybody who visits the pantry gets an emergency food package.
“Nobody leaves hungry,” Jandrain said.
Pantry and food bank representatives said they have ongoing food drives and fundraising campaigns so they can always be prepared for economic realities such as food stamp cuts and unemployment, as well as natural disasters or other events that might cause increased need.
The St. Vincent pantry, for instance, gets help from drives through area churches and organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Jandrain said.
The Food Bank for the Heartland gets corporate food donations, including fresh produce, dairy products and meat, and collects canned goods in various drives throughout the year. The recent Shine the Light on Hunger campaign provided more than 1.5 million meals for hungry people in the community. A corporate drive, Strike Out Hunger, is set for College World Series time.
The Food Bank of Iowa is concentrating on getting the food to the people who need it. It serves 375 agencies in 55 Iowa counties.
“We're making more of an effort to deliver food instead of having agencies come here,” Pingel said.
One way they're doing that is through a mobile pantry, which sets up a farmers marketlike giveaway where people can get food in cities and towns across the state.
The Food Bank of Iowa distributed more than 9 million pounds of food in the past fiscal year, up from 8.5 million the year before.
Each person interviewed said contributions of canned goods are welcome and appreciated, but monetary donations allow them to fill in gaps and make sure they have what they need.
Above all, they said, it's important to stay the course.
“You need to have a plan, work the plan and be methodical and smart,” said Brian Barks, Food Bank for the Heartland's director of development and public relations.