As hunger rises in US, so do creative ways to help

One example: Some corporations are being urged to skip their annual holiday party and donate the money to help the hungry instead.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Hot food: Manuel Souza gets a bowl of soup from a volunteer in San Jose, Calif.
Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Serving dinner: Volunteers dish out food to the homeless at the Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen in San Jose, Calif.

With a big spike in the number of Americans heading to food banks, people who want to help are getting creative – from corporations to state governments to individuals.

Food pantries across the country have reported a 30 percent increase in how many people are coming in for a bag of groceries, many of them for the first time. That has prompted more corporate and individual donations, but not nearly enough to meet the sudden demand. And so antihunger advocates have put on their thinking caps.

Groups like City Harvest in New York are urging corporations such as BlackRock Inc. to skip their annual holiday party and donate the money to help the hungry instead.

Dozens of yoga centers like Riverdog in Old Saybrook, Conn., are holding "Yoga for Food" events: bring a bag of groceries and get a free class.

Feeding America, the largest US hunger-relief organization, has teamed up with General Mills and NBC's show "The Biggest Loser" for a "Pound for Pound Challenge." Pledge to lose weight and for every pound you do, General Mills will donate 10 cents to Feeding America.

Even soap operas are in on it. Characters in "Guiding Light" and "The Young and the Restless" are holding V8 Juice-sponsored food drives for Feeding America.

Antihunger advocates say this is one of the toughest seasons they've ever seen, but it's also an innovative one, too.

"This is the scrappiest year we've had in terms of having to come up with strategic approaches to things," says Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, which collects excess food and delivers it to community food programs. "But the team here is being fantastically creative not only about raising funds, but also raising food, too. We're turning over every stone we can."

The "stones" they're turning over are big and little. At City Harvest's request, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote to 200 major food manufacturers and distributors in the area and asked them to donate. The group is also urging individuals to skip lunch one day and donate that money to a food bank.

Similar efforts are under way nationwide. Feeding America, which used to be called America's Second Harvest, coordinates donations of money and food for more than 200 food banks in all 50 states. This year, donations of food to Feeding America are up 13 percent over last year. Funding is up 30 percent.

Corporations like Kraft Foods, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America have made million-dollar-plus donations this year. Others, like ADP, decided to forgo holiday bonuses and instead donate a half million dollars to Feeding America [Editor's Note: The original version of this sentence contained the name of another company.].

"That is our happy news at the national office," says Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, which is based in Chicago. "But demand is up so much higher that even though we're raking in all of this dough and all of this food, we're not keeping up with demand."

In a survey of its member food banks released last week, Feeding America found that virtually all its food banks are experiencing significant increases in demand. Although the average is 30 percent, some reported hikes of 60 percent or more. Also, more than 70 percent of food banks said they had to reduce the amount of food given out at a time.

"There are record numbers of new men, women and children, who never thought they would need food assistance," said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, in a statement that accompanied the report.

That's also prompted a call for federal and state officials to increase the amount of money for food stamps and to make it easier for people to access them. In fact, antihunger advocates are calling on the incoming Obama administration to put a hefty increase in food-stamp benefits into its stimulus package.

Some states are already taking action. In Washington State, local antihunger advocates successfully lobbied the state legislature this fall to raise the eligibility requirements for food stamps to 200 percent of the poverty level. That allows an additional 68,000 working families access to food stamps.

"In the first two months since it's been implemented, we almost reached the goal of new people enrolling that we'd set for the whole year," says Linda Stone, coordinator of the Western Region Anti-Hunger Consortium.

Other states have also raised the income limit for food stamps or are considering doing so. They include Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Maryland.

Other states, like Montana, are getting even more creative. They're hoping to take advantage of a provision of the food-stamp law that says if people are getting federal assistance with their heating bills from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), they're eligible to receive the highest utility deduction in calculating their food-stamp eligibility.

While states are trying to find ways to keep people fed, so, too, are individuals like yoga teacher Kimberly Smith. She had to teach a class the morning after the 9/11 attacks, and the Connecticut resident decided she wanted to do something to help "take care of the community." So she got about 30 students to bring a bag of groceries to donate and did a free yoga practice with them. They collected about 200 pounds of food that year.

Since then, the idea has grown into a national movement with more than 30 yoga studios participating in 13 states. They've raised hundreds of thousands of pounds of food.

"It was a natural fit: Yoga is food for the spirit," says Ms. Smith. "It's become a win, win, win: The students who get involved feel good, so do the studios that participate. And then, of course, the food banks are grateful."

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