9-22-05 - Striking a balance, food versus need in the wake of tragedy, promises to test the abilities of small assistance agencies increasingly critical to the long-term needs of Hurricane Katrina survivors. And another massive storm is on the way.
Demands on food banks across Texas have doubled since hundreds of thousands of people sought refugee in the state, with no sign of an ebb. Pantries that rely on donations and volunteers to keep shelves stocked and the hungry fed can rest assured that the food won't run out, said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest, a network that distributes food to 200 food banks across the nation.
"If you look at last year, we moved 2 billion pounds of grocery products throughout the country, so it's a large operation with a lot of people working together: corporations, foundations, donors that offer support," Fraser said.
America's Second Harvest has received more than $10 million in donations for disaster assistance, including $1 million from Oprah's Angel Network. The North Texas Food Bank and Houston Food Bank were among agencies that benefited, receiving five truckloads of food and grocery products apiece.
Meanwhile, the Houston food bank shifted into high gear to meet the new threat from Hurricane Rita, which was hurtling toward the Texas coast. Forecasters predicted it would come ashore Saturday.
Before Katrina, food banks were already seeing an increased demand attributed to changing economic conditions and more working poor. Demand for assistance climbed 57 percent since 9-11 at the North Texas Food Bank, which serves 400 member agencies in 13 counties, including Dallas.
Right now, generous donations are helping meet the extra load, but 200 of the food bank's member agencies are requesting additional food for hurricane refugees.
To respond to the disaster, the food bank sped up the approval process for agencies helping evacuees and waived a modest processing fee. Loads of donated water, canned goods and other items continue to arrive daily at the food bank's busy docks.
But Teddie Story, executive director of Irving Cares Inc., which helps feed 15 Dallas-area families each day, is concerned about supplies three to six months from now. Her small agency is now helping provide emergency food to 50 evacuees a day besides the other families.
The North Texas Food Bank, one of the largest in the country, provides 20 percent of the goods distributed by Irving Cares, which relies on donations for 60 percent.
"I'm worried about the day I can't get what I need from the food bank because their donations are down," Story said. "If the food bank doesn't have what we need, we have to rely on retail, and that's a lot more expensive."
Colleen Hager, North Texas Food Bank spokeswoman, said officials expect no reduction in demand as refugees clear out of shelters.
"We feel certain that in two months our agencies are going to see an increase in demand. These new residents are not going to find jobs right away, and their needs are going to continue to exist," she said.
J.P. Hopkins said he started with about 80 hurricane victims visiting his Zavalla Food Pantry in East Texas, which hands out groceries twice a month. The number is gradually declining.
"Our supply is low," Hopkins said. "We have to watch our pennies."
Wesley Sims, 36, is just thankful for the help. Rescued from New Orleans by helicopter, he recounts sleeping on a bridge before eventually arriving in Houston. He later traveled to the Dallas area, where he was reunited with family members who had earlier escaped.
"They've been good to me. I've been blessed," Sims said as Irving Cares volunteers divvied up groceries as a stopgap until approval of his food stamps. "We're probably going to be here a while."
Besides meeting increased need from food pantries, the hard-hit Houston Food Bank is providing emergency supplies of food to refugees who were being placed in apartments and calling for more volunteers.
"For Rita, right now we know we have plenty of supplies on hand," said spokeswoman Betsy Ballard. "We have received a tremendous influx of food. I think we'll be in pretty good shape on the food supply, and I'm confident we could get even more if Rita proves to be the horrible disaster we hope it won't be."
Jan Pruitt, North Texas Food Bank's executive director, counts on increased attention on poverty to keep the groceries moving. The televised pictures of stricken evacuees forced the nation to see its poor and hungry, Pruitt said.
"The homeless guy on the street, it's easy to turn away from him because it's 'his fault,'" Pruitt said. "This gives a real clear picture of who the poor people are: the elderly, people with children, the disabled. If you look at the pictures of people in the Superdome, they didn't have the money to save their lives."
On the Net:
North Texas Food Bank: http://www.ntxfoodbank.org
Houston Food Bank: http://www.houstonfoodbank.org
America's Second Harvest: http://www.secondharvest.org
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