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Feds Cut $1.5 Million from Local Food Banks

SF Food Bank is seeing high demand for free groceries
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SF Food Bank is seeing high demand for free groceries
Programs are scrambling to make up the difference as demand surges

For nearly 30 years, a federal initiative has helped ensure that the Bay Area’s needy have sustenance and a roof over their heads, if only for a night.

But this summer, local social service agencies got a nasty surprise. In late July, the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program announced that the Bay Area would lose $1.5 million in financing. The region has been allocated $1.9 million, down from last year’s $3.4 million.

Three of the seven Bay Area counties -- San Francisco, Marin and Napa -- will receive no money at all. Marin and Napa had not initially qualified in 2010 but later received nearly $70,000 from a pool of money that program officials set aside for counties that did not meet standards for the regular allocation.

San Francisco will lose out on $592,000 it had gotten from the program last year, the most drastic of the Bay Area cuts. The national board decided that the program would finance only areas with unemployment and poverty rates at least two points above the national average, instead of just at or above the average.

The director of safety net programs at the local United Way chapter, Laura Escobar, who is responsible for distributing the money to the counties, said she planned to argue that San Francisco should get a share of this year’s set-aside money, which is only $250,000 for the entire state.

Local organizations were not told of the cut until after the 2011 fiscal year started in July. The budget gridlock in Washington delayed Congressional allocations for the program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, until April from January.

When the dust cleared, the program’s financing had been chopped by 40 percent.

Program administrators then spent months deciding how to distribute the remaining money nationally. The San Francisco Food Bank had already cut $1.6 million from its operating budget of $14.5 million for the current fiscal year, said Sean Brooks, director of programs. It received $161,000 from the federal initiative last year. “We made grants and allocations based on federal funds we receive every year,” Brooks said. “To get cut off is patently unfair.”

He said the food bank would probably cut back on buying more expensive proteins like meat and eggs.

Smaller agencies may fare worse. Escobar said that last year, each of 11 emergency shelters in San Francisco received $24,000 to $35,000 from the program. “For the smaller shelters that count on this money each year, losing it will make a huge difference,” she said.

Food banks are also coping with a surge in demand. Each week, 30,000 households in San Francisco and Marin County use the SF Food Bank directly or indirectly, Brooks said, which amounts to 70 percent more people than when the recession began in 2008.

“After 28 years, during a time when our lines are longer, and people are in the most need of the help we provide, it just doesn’t make sense to cut off our funding,” he said.

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