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Food bank struggles to feed Berkeley, Albany residents in need

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Empty boxes sit at the Berkeley Food Bank. The food bank is having issues with their funding.


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OCTOBER 05, 2011

Jackie Levin described Wednesday as a “slow day.”

But a slow day at the Berkeley Food Pantry, where she has volunteered for the last three years, still brings in 35 to 40 families looking to put food on the table.

Meeting this demand — which in total has nearly doubled since 2008, according to Bill Shive, the pantry’s director — has become a crisis for the food bank, with diminishing funds unable to meet the rising need.

At the pantry, an increasing number of the clients are middle-class individuals using it for the first time, according to Levin.

“You never know what these people are going through,” Levin said. “You get new people who come in for the first time, and they’re a little nervous. But it’s a very rewarding job to do. This lady came in and registered and said she was about to be homeless. She burst into tears. I hadn’t had that happen before.”

The food bank, which serves residents of Berkeley and Albany and is run out of the Berkeley Friends Church, operates mainly with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the distribution of funds has been delayed due to budget problems at the national level. Just last week — before the pantry received its overdue check — it only had $190 left, according to Shive.

The food bank typically receives two checks from FEMA per year — one in the spring and one in the fall. But this year’s first check did not arrive until last week, according to Shive, and it was slashed by 30 percent compared to last year.

Laura Escobar, director of safety net programs for United Way Bay Area, said this year’s delay in approving a federal budget halted the allocation of funding.

“Normally organizations would receive their money sometime in March, maybe even April, and one year it’s been as late as May, but this year was pushed back a lot further,” she said.

The pantry once received $12,000 twice a year, but with federal funds quickly declining, the pantry’s most recent check was for $8,400, Shive said.

“Last year, about half our budget came from FEMA — now it’s about a third,” Shive said.

Because of the decrease and delay in funding, the Berkeley Food Pantry has faced difficulty feeding everyone who comes to its door, half of whom are children, according to Shive.

“We get people who have obviously been down and out all their lives, people who are Ph.D.-caliber people who are out of work and everything in between — old people, old seniors, young mothers with little kids, homeless people,” Shive said.

FEMA’s government support was cut by 40 percent this year, dropping from $200 million to $120 million, according to Escobar. Due to the large drop in funding, organizations cannot be sure how much they will receive in the future.

“Funding could go down to zero, and organizations will have to cut programs,” Escobar said. “If they don’t have good private funding, they’ll just have to close.”

About 49,000 residents seek food bank assistance each week in Alameda County, according to the 2010 study by Alameda County Community Food Bank and Hunger Study.

One in six people in the county has required food bank assistance at some point, according to Michael Altfest, communications manager for the Alameda County Community Food Bank. August saw an all-time high in emergency food help line calls, with 3,754 calls to the line, according to Altfest.

“And those are only calls — it doesn’t take into account that each caller could have a family,” Altfest said. “Our previous high was in July, and that was 3,490 calls. The amount of people needing assistance is steadily going up.”

With an uncertain financial future, the Berkeley Food Pantry relies on private funds more than ever.

“If we hadn’t have received support from donations, we wouldn’t have had enough money to last us before the check came,” Shive said. “We would have really had to bear down.”

Contact Geena Cova at 


OCTOBER 05, 2011