B.G. food bank hungry for donations

Slump in summer giving is hurting needy in rural areas

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter




Food donations are always welcome at the North County Community Food Bank. So are volunteers and dollars.

Frozen meats, rice, dried beans, lentils, oats, soups, pasta and hygiene products are currently “depleted,” according to executive director Elizabeth Cerveny. “People are hungry, and we desperately ask for your donations,” she said.

Call 360-687-5007 or email executive.directo.... The North County Community Food Bank is at 17 N.E. Third Ave., Battle Ground.

The Lewis River Mobile Food Bank is at 360-263-5763 or lrmfb@tds.net.

BATTLE GROUND — When hunger is rising in cities and suburbs, you can be sure it's soaring in the countryside.

"We are in dire straits," said Elizabeth Cerveny, executive director of the North County Community Food Bank. "Our client enrollment is escalating fast, and our summer donations are dropping."

In fact, Ceverny said, Battle Ground's little food pantry — which is tucked away to the north of Main Street in Old Town — has never seen such a dramatic rise in need as it has this year. It served nearly 6,600 more people in the first half of this year than it did in the first half of 2012, according to monthly tallies Cerveny provided.

That's partially due to a predictable seasonal cycle of sagging summer donations, Cerveny said, but it's also due to lingering economic pains that hurt worse in rural areas than they do in cities.

"In the rural areas we are serving, the jobs just aren't available," said Candice Howell, an organizer of the Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, a pantry-on-wheels that distributes food at a different north county spot every Sunday. "Gas prices have stayed high, and we all know the price of food hasn't gone down. You have to pay rent and put gas in the car and pay the electric bill. What suffers the most is food."

Howell said the all-volunteer Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, launched in 2009, used to average about 6,000 pounds of food given away per month, but in March 2013 it exceeded 7,500. She doesn't have the tally for July, she said, but her personal experience on Sunday was a "crazy" number of clients in Yacolt.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita food insecurity is slightly higher outside of metropolitan areas than inside, and poverty in general is deeper and more severe in nonmetropolitan areas.

"We haven't seen any signs of recovery," Cerveny told The Columbian late last year, and she predicted that this summer would be particularly rough for clients of the North County Community Food Bank. On Monday she said that prediction has come true.

For one thing, the boom-and-bust cycle that's built into the seasons continues. People are reliably generous during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday season, she said, and Clark County's annual Walk & Knock food drive, always the first Saturday in December, makes the most of that; there's also an annual mail carriers' union food drive on the second Saturday in May.

Those drives always result in a huge influx of supplies, but it never takes very long to send it all packing again, Cerveny said. That leaves mostly empty shelves at the food bank by this time of year, she said, since private donations always drop off over the summer.

"Everybody gets busy, everybody's thinking about traveling. It's just human nature. Everybody thinks about giving around the holidays," she said.

In addition, she said, the supermarket industry is getting smarter about tracking inventory and reducing waste — which means its regular giveaways of food that's still OK but nearing its pull date are getting smaller all the time. Also, new numerous supermarkets have opened or are soon to open to the south — including a new Walmart Neighborhood Market in Vancouver Plaza, another Walmart grocer headed for the corner of Grand and Mill Plain boulevards and a Chuck's Produce almost open on Northeast Highway 99 — while Battle Ground's supermarkets have remained exactly the same for years now.

"We aren't picking up any additional donors," said Cerveny. All of which leaves the food bank shelling out more of its own cash for reliable shipments of staples from its partner suppliers, the Clark County Food Bank and the Oregon Food Bank Network. This year the North County Community Food Bank has been burning through $3,000 to $4,000 a month to keep its shelves filled, Cerverny said.

Those are the supply-side factors. On the demand side, Cerveny noted, across-the-board federal budget cuts known as "sequestration" resulted in unemployment benefits shrinking or disappearing for thousands of Clark County residents this spring, Cerveny noted; more senior citizens are living on modest social security checks while facing costly medical issues as well as basic hunger; and, prices of the basic basics -- food, rent, utilities, fuel -- all rose sharply in recent years.

Schoolchildren are home — and hungry — all day over the summer rather than eating free or reduced-priced lunches at school, she said. Plus, affordable rentals and warmer weather tend to beckon poorer renters and homeless people north in summertime.

According to Cerveny, the North County Community Food Bank served 9,217 households, including 37,033 people, in the first six months of 2012; in the first six months of 2013, the numbers were up to 10,747 including 43,602 people. That's an increase of 6,569 people for the same six-month period.

"There are a lot of dynamics that play into this increase," Cerveny said, "but the result is, I can't keep enough food on our shelves. I can't meet the needs that we have here."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.