Despite Congress' success at partially averting the "fiscal cliff," Western Washington food banks and their patrons - including the food banks here in Whatcom County - continue to face a mountain of challenges in meeting basic food needs over the coming year.
It's true that some disastrous hardships for nonprofits and low-income Americans were avoided by lawmakers' actions to extend the current Farm Bill and to renew the food donation tax deduction. However, the catastrophic drought that parched Midwest farmland last summer is now hitting consumer pocketbooks. Shortages of grain, grass and corn feed resulting from the drought in 2012 mean increases in the costs of beef, poultry and grain and dairy products in 2013.
Low-income families who already are struggling to put meals on the table will soon find shortages at food banks and higher prices at the grocery store. The USDA already has estimated that prices will rise at least 3 percent due to the drought.
The impact on local food banks will be dramatic. With food supplies low because of the drought, our state's crops are being sold out of state. Even lower graded food - the smaller potatoes or the less-than-perfect apples - that normally would be donated as surplus to food banks is up for sale. That means less food for the estimated one in 14 Western Washingtonians - one-third of them children - who rely on food banks for their daily nutrition.
All this also occurs at a time when our local food bank demand is at an all-time high. In 2011, Food Lifeline provided 35 million pounds of food - the equivalent of 27 million meals for more than 750,000 people - to some 300 food banks, emergency shelters and meal programs across Western Washington, including Bellingham Food Bank and nine others in Whatcom County. Last year, we shattered that record as demand for fresh, nutritious food increased by more than 50 percent since the start of the recession.
To potentially make matters even worse, economists predict that the recession's impact on hungry children, families and seniors will not wane for five to seven years, even as the economy improves.
While we gained short-term relief - the Farm Bill extension is in place until Sept. 30 - challenges still lie ahead. Congressional action on the Farm Bill is tentatively scheduled for the end of February, when policymakers will embark on redrafting the legislation.
Washington voters can take action today by urging lawmakers to preserve vital anti-hunger and nutrition programs, such as food stamps and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which helps to keep the lights on and shelves stocked at food banks. Cuts to these programs will open significant gaps in the social safety net and extend lines at already over-burdened food banks.
Also, consider inviting your Congressional representatives to visit a food bank in their district to find out more about how emergency food is being supported in their community.
Finally, people should be aware of the food bought and wasted in their own households. Americans throw away 34 million tons of food - an average of 20 pounds a month for every single person in the country and 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States. If people donated the money they spent on surplus food to food banks instead, it would be enough to feed every hungry person in the nation - two times over.
Congress, and each of us, can take action to support local food banks at this critical time. Hungry people across our community are counting on all of us.
Linda Nageotte is president and CEO of the Seattle-based nonprofit Food Lifeline, which supplies thousands of pounds of food to Whatcom County food banks, emergency shelters and meal programs every year.