By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — The number of New Mexican families worried about where their next meal will come from is growing as the economy sputters along and food banks try to cobble together what donations they can.
But keeping shelves stocked may be more difficult this year as federal support for The Emergency Food Assistance Program is expected to be slashed by more than half.
A bipartisan group of 21 U.S. senators — including Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Democrats from New Mexico — is urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to use existing funding to purchase more food that can then be funneled to the nation’s food banks. Last year, federal funding for the program totaled more than $300 million, which was used to buy commodities such as poultry and pork.
With only $133 million set aside this year, there’s no way existing supplies will meet demand, the senators said in a letter sent this week to Vilsack. They said one in eight Americans receive emergency food assistance each year through the nation’s food banks.
“With the millions of families across the country continuing to struggle to make ends meet in the wake of the recession, TEFAP commodities are critical,” they wrote.
Officials estimate that more than 20 percent of the food moving through the nation’s network of food banks is made up of commodities that are purchased as a result of the emergency food program.
For Roadrunner Food Bank, the state’s largest food bank, the program delivered an extra 3 million pounds of high-protein food last year.
“There’s always a gap between the amount of food that we have and the amount of food that we need, and that extra food really helps us close that gap,” said Melody Wattenbarger, Roadrunner’s president and CEO.
The food bank distributes more than 100,000 pounds of food every day, and Wattenbarger said there has been no sign of demand letting up. The food bank estimates it reaches about 40,000 people a week, including senior citizens and children.
In northern New Mexico, The Food Depot has reported a 30 percent increase in demand for food assistance since the economic downturn.
“The people we serve are the ones who had the smallest amount of savings and the smallest amount of resources to fall back on when the recession hit. They were just hit first and worst,” Wattenbarger said. “It was devastating for families all across New Mexico, and we really expect to see elevated need for years to come.”
New Mexico leads the nation when it comes to the rate of child food insecurity, with almost one in three children going without consistent access to food.
Udall and Heinrich described the situation as a serious problem.
“Too many children in our state go to bed hungry. We must ensure New Mexico food banks have the necessary resources to effectively provide and distribute healthy meals to children and families in need,” Heinrich said.
Even if Vilsack were to answer the senators’ request today, it will take months before the emergency commodities will filter down to the food banks.