It is a winter-cold irony that in tough economic times, when the number of those in need swells, charitable giving tends to recede. While national figures show that donations could be rebounding, some local charities are still facing the holidays with limited means to serve the increasingly long lines at their doors.
Such is the case at the Nashville-based Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves 46 counties in Middle and West Tennessee. On Nov. 1, they began their annual Feeding Hope Challenge, with a goal of providing 9 million meals for hungry Tennesseans by the end of the year. But as the halfway point nears, food donations and financial contributions aren’t keeping up.
Through Thanksgiving, Second Harvest has raised just a million meals, well behind schedule if this year’s goal is to be met and, officials say, 30 percent behind where donations stood last year at this time. They’ve pointed to lingering economic woes and donor fatigue as contributing factors.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, charities around the country have felt the effects of Americans tightening their wallets, and while there are signs that charitable giving is on the rise again, many are still feeling the pinch.
A recent study by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative found that 44 percent of 813 charities that responded to a survey have seen an increase in funds raised in the first half of 2011, compared to the same time frame in 2010. However, 33 percent of responding charities reported a decline in donations. The numbers have still not returned to where they were in 2007, when a similar survey found 65 percent of responding charities reporting an increase in donations from the previous year.
In Nashville, Second Harvest is not the only one struggling to meet its goals for the season. The Salvation Army in Nashville is nearing the end of its Angel Tree program, which provides gifts to less-fortunate children and seniors. Officials there tell The City Paper that while the program accepted 17,000 requests for assistance this year — its highest number ever — only 5,800 angels have been adopted so far. The deadline is Dec. 3.
The combination of an increase in need and a decrease in funds is not unique to the holiday season. Second Harvest’s Tasha Kennard says that while demand is up 25 percent, year-to-date fundraising is down 10 percent compared to a year ago.
“We’re trying to do more with less. It’s a perfect storm, if you will,” she says. “At the same time, Congress is looking at cutting federal nutrition programs, which will put people in need and relying on social service programs like the food bank.”
As self-set Washington deadlines continue to pass without action, the depth of the cuts, and their targets, are still in question. The supercommittee’s failure to agree on a plan for deficit reduction will trigger automatic cuts, unless legislators agree, again, to reset the rules. But if and when the cuts come, they could result in decreased funding for programs that bear some of the burden of feeding the hungry in Tennessee.
Among those Kennard lists as at-risk are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which provides food stamps), The Emergency Food Assistance Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) assistance. Second Harvest does not receive funds from these programs, but they share the hunger burden, lessening the demand on the food bank. However, as unemployment rates remain stubbornly high, many of the people enrolled in these programs still need more help.
“Food banks used to be a place where people could go to get help on an as-needed basis, in a time of crisis,” Kennard says. “Now what we’re finding is that food banks are becoming the new normal. People are coming to us every month, versus every couple of months. Some agencies are reporting people coming in every single week, because even if they’re enrolled in food stamps, they still cannot make ends meet.”
As of October, 1,281,058 individuals (619,780 households) were enrolled in Tennessee’s food stamp program. In Davidson County, 123,671 individuals (61,348 households) out of a population of 626,681 are enrolled. Those numbers represent an increase from 2010 and are dramatically higher than the year before the financial crisis. In 2007, the state’s food stamp enrollment sat at 891,885 (400,715 households) — more than 300,000 fewer individuals than are currently on the rolls — with Davidson County’s enrollment coming in at 81,305 individuals (37,112 households).
In a Nov. 17 blog post, Second Harvest noted the rising cost of the traditional ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal and asked readers to consider the struggle of providing holiday meals, or any meal for that matter, on a food stamp budget.
“Ask yourself, would you be able to feed your family on $4.50 a day? Could you provide a Thanksgiving meal on a weekly Food Stamp budget of $31.50?” read bold letters in the middle of the page.
For Second Harvest, the holiday food drive is a chance to highlight a year-round problem.
“It’s not just the holidays when people start struggling. Hunger is 365 days a year, just like for you and me,” Kennard says. “What would you do if you lost your job and we’re unemployed for the next two months? You have to think about that.”
Through the first few weeks of the Feeding Hope Challenge, Second Harvest officials have urged members of the community to donate whatever they can, even if it’s the smallest amount. Because of the organization’s efficiency and focus on stretching every donation, Kennard says they can make every bit count. Every dollar donated, she says, will provide four meals.
Those wishing to help can also donate their time, by coming to the food bank to help sort dairy and meat products as well as nonperishable items. Volunteers can also pack backpacks for at-risk children.
Food donations are being accepted at participating Kroger, Food Lion, Walmart, Publix and Whole Foods locations as well as at the Second Harvest Food Bank at 331 Great Circle Road from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The food bank has been getting help from area organizations. The Predators recently held a food drive to benefit Second Harvest, and the proceeds from one of the preview days celebrating the reopening of the Opry Mills 20 went to the food bank. Appropriately, Nashville’s food truck owners are also chipping in, donating 10 percent of the proceeds from their weekly Metro Center meetup, Food Truck Tuesdays. But with 8 million meals to go, Second Harvest still needs a hand.
“We know it’s been a tough four years,” Kennard says. “We know that we’ve asked a lot over the past four years since we’ve gone into this tough economic period. But it’s not over for our community, and we still need help.”