Food Banks Struggle While Funds Dwindle 

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A critical shortage in federal money and an ailing economy have local food banks scrambling for crumbs in a post-holiday malaise.

Blame Hurricane Katrina, blame the slowing economy for putting the screws on donors, or blame George Bush's bio-fuel initiatives for converting the federal vat of creamed corn to diesel fuel. All have contributed to the shortage, say officials at the Central Virginia Food Bank and other area food pantries.

Carl Murdock, a food pantry volunteer at Northminster Baptist Church in Richmond's North Side, is beyond blaming.

"We'll just … have to provide them what we can," says Murdock, whose program serves about 400 families in metro Richmond and used to count on receiving as much as 3,000 pounds of food weekly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We're getting ready to cut by half what we give out because the USDA has absolutely nothing available for us to get right now."

That particular issue -- decreased USDA subsidies because of inflation-driven price increases, fewer available surplus goods and the trimming back of certain federal food aid programs — has less to do with bio-fuel demands than it does with an ugly battle in Congress over the renewal of the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill, usually thought of by the general public as nothing more than a big payoff to large corporate farms, also provides money that allows food banks across the country to purchase high-demand commodities such as green beans, apple sauce, spaghetti and spaghetti sauce.

"The bad news about all of this in my mind is our clientele is working moms or older folks. We're going to be cutting a whole lot out of their budgets," Murdock says. "It's pretty severe — any cut in what we're giving them is coming out of their pockets."

The frustratingly cyclical nature of the business of feeding the poor likely means it'll get worse before it gets better, says Rick Holsbach with the Central Virginia Food Bank (www.cvfb.org). The loss of federal subsidies only makes it worse that local giving is down, too.

"Food drives that we have consistently every year … every one of those we have seen a decline over the past six months from previous years," Holsbach says. "This is my gut feeling … people just don't have it to give anymore." S

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