Food Banks

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FOOD BANKS. Warehouses that collect and store donations of surplus foods, food banks distribute the foodstuffs to authorized nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to the needy. The food comes from many sources, including individual contributions, local food drives, regional grocery stores, farmers, food service companies, and national food corporations. The surpluses arise from mislabeling, mispackaging, mishandling, and other factors that contribute to loss of commercial valuehowever, all the foods are safe and edible.

Food banks began in the late 1960s when the retired Arizona businessman John Van Hengel volunteered in a soup kitchen and began to solicit donations of food products that would otherwise be wasted. When the soup kitchen received more food than it could handle, Van Hengel set up a warehouse to store and distribute these food products. As other cities learned of the food bank concept, they began to duplicate it in their areas. A grant from the federal government in 1976 assisted the development of food banks throughout the nation. Although food banks developed as temporary emergency food relief organizations, they have become permanent fixtures in America because of economic recessions, job insecurity, erosion of public assistance benefits, and sharp increases in housing and other costs. Food banks multiplied from a few dozen in the 1980s to over 250 in 2002.

Today, approximately 80 percent of all food banks in the United States are networked through an organization called America's Second Harvest, which is the largest domestic hunger relief organization. Food banks have the capacity to receive large volumes of food and distribute it efficiently and quickly. America's Second Harvest serves as a link between food banks in its network, and can assist with moving food out of one bank and into another (thus helping to control inventory), move product quickly, and minimize waste. The banks are typically operated by a small staff of employees who direct the program, manage the warehouse operation, and oversee a large corps of volunteers. Financial records are kept and the banks are audited annually. Food banks must comply with local health codes regarding sanitation and safe food handling. Because of the Tax Reform Act of 1976, corporate donors can take advantage of tax deductions for their contributionsnot only for 100 percent of production costs, but also for 50 percent of the difference between the product cost and the normal sale price. As a result of the Good Samaritan Act passed by Congress in 1981, donors are absolved from liability for the food's safety as long as they make an effort to determine that the food is edible and fit for human consumption when donated.

The funding for food banks comes from private contributions, foundations, some government sources, and fund-raising. The organizations that receive the food are also charged what is called a shared maintenance fee. This is a small amount (18 cents per pound in 2002) to help cover the cost of handling the product, and is not based on the value of the food. Grant monies are often available to those organizations that cannot afford even this small fee. Very perishable food items are sometimes given away at no cost as they cannot be stored for long periods of time.

Large food bank operations have developed innovative ways to distribute even more food. The food banks in Delaware and Washington, D.C., operate onsite community kitchens where donated foods are prepared into meals that can be distributed to programs such as the Kids Café, which is an after-school feeding program for low-income children.

Food banks collectively distribute nearly a billion pounds of food annually, feeding more than 23 million needy Americans, including 8 million children and 4 million senior citizens. As the problem of hunger in America continues to grow, low-income families will continue to rely on food banks to provide a source of low-cost food assistance and a means of decreasing their food insecurity.

Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand, and the poor will always exist in every society. While food banks cannot eliminate poverty, their mission is to abolish hunger; they do an admirable job of it, providing assistance to nearly a tenth of the population. They augment the many federal food assistance programs that play the larger role in the food-security safety net for limited-income families. Unfortunately, it does not look as if food banks will disappear from America as their founders had once hoped. The United States produces enough food to adequately feed all of its citizens. The problem is often getting the food to those who need it; food banks are one solution.

See also Food Pantries ; Government Agencies ; Homelessness ; Poverty ; Soup Kitchens ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


History of America's Second Harvest, The. Available at

Kantor, Linda, Kathryn Lipton, Alden Manchester, and Victor Oliveira. "Estimating and Addressing America's Food Losses." Food Review 17 (1997): 111.

Kim, Myoung, Jim Ohls, and Rhonda Cohen. Hunger in America 2001 National Report. Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research, 2001.

Poppendieck, Janet. Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. New York: Viking, 1998.

Riches, Graham, ed. First World Hunger: Food Security and Welfare Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Nancy Cotugna