It's the most wonderful time of the year-if you can afford to buy the ingredients for the Devil's Food Layer Cake with Peppermint Frosting on the cover of a leading food magazine this month. Just the chocolate called for (Swiss white, bittersweet, and cocoa powder) could cost about $20. If you're Betty Gillis, and a lot of Americans like her, you'll be forgoing that kind of holiday extravagance. Gillis is a pharmacy technician in the Los Angeles suburbs who not so long ago was volunteering at a food pantry. But on the Saturday before Thanksgiving she found herself standing in line for food.
Local food bank organizers expected several hundred, but before dawn 500 already stood in line for the 10 a.m. opening, and by the time it was over the food giveaway had served 5,000 people. Under a warm sun recipients made their way beneath blue-and-white tents set up in a parking lot to receive bags of citrus, tomatoes, pumpkin pies, yogurt, cereal, cooking oil, and loaves of bread. Some waited six hours for free food.
"My daughter asked me the other day, 'Are we so poor that we have to stand in line for food?' And I said, 'Yeah,'" Gillis told the Los Angeles Times.
Sunny southern California is not where you expect to find folks who can't afford food, but demand at local food banks is up 40 percent from last year, according to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Food-bank goers are more likely this season to be working- or middle-class families who've lost a job (like Gillis), can't pay a mortgage, or have nowhere left to tap for credit.
These don't face malnutrition, but food insecurity is up in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture, and nearly 30 million people currently participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps)-a 9.5 percent increase from the same time a year ago.
Americans are yet a long way from the breadlines, Hoovervilles, and pushcart peddling of the 1930s, but the prospect of more breadwinners needing help in a country that remains the breadbasket of the world is disheartening. Among lawmakers and economists few seem to understand why food prices remain high and how to help those in need.
Remember just months ago when experts pegged the global food crisis to high energy costs, the explosion of grain demand in China and Asia, and food shortages? Since that time energy costs have dropped by half, China and Asia have slumped along with the rest of us, reducing demand. And food shortages? World grain harvests are up almost 4 percent for the 2008-09 season. Even after turning one-third into animal feed (which eventually comes back to feed us) and a third of U.S. corn to feed our ethanol-powered cars, there's still enough left over to feed every person on the globe 3,000 calories a day. Yet against all the laws of supply and demand, the price of a bushel of corn is up nearly 40 percent from a year ago and a box of cornflakes is up nearly 10 percent.
Expect food manufacturers to blame the rise on ethanol production, and expect agribusiness to blame price hikes on the food makers. As economist Terry Francl at the American Farm Bureau Federation points out, earnings are up at Del Monte (28 percent), Land O' Lakes (23 percent), and Sara Lee (51 percent). Unlike scrutiny of the mortgage industry, few regulators have focused on the greed factor propelling agri-giants, food makers, and index speculators who bet on grain futures. Few in Congress are focused on it, either, and the solution of the incoming Obama administration is to expand the food stamp and school lunch programs-programs with proven track records for increasing the need for food assistance while shielding food and farm lobbies.
We don't have to wait for Washington to get the picture. Food banks around the country, many of them faith-based nonprofits, need holiday help. If you can buy all the ingredients for Aunt Betty's fruit cake, or the Devil's Food Layer Cake with Peppermint Frosting, then buy extra staples and drop them off at your local food bank on the way home (memo to self here).
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