Stimulus: Can it feed the hungry?

The economic stimulus plan provides $150 million for food banks. Advocates for the hungry say it can't arrive soon enough.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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Jesse Taylor said the hungry need their own bailout.
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Rosetta Stokes made her first visit to a soup kitchen last week.
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Carmen Quinones, who has been coming to the pantry for two months, hopes the stimulus plan will help her afford enough food for her family.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- For Jesse Taylor, the debate over the federal stimulus plan wasn't about politicians trying to score points or economists parsing the unemployment rate.

It was about the growing ranks of hungry people lining up outside his Harlem food pantry.

"We're in the midst of a perfect storm: We've received budget cuts, we've seen an increase in the number of people coming in, and we've seen the cost of food going up," said Taylor, senior director of Community Kitchen, a food pantry and soup kitchen run by the New York City Food Bank.

On a recent cold morning, the unassuming and friendly Taylor greeted members of the community -- some of whom he has come to know by name -- waiting to enter the pantry for a bundle of groceries.

"We definitely need to bail out the hungry," Taylor said.

The $787 billion economic stimulus plan signed by President Obama on Feb. 17 allocates $150 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The 28-year old program, known as TEFAP, sends shipments of federally purchased food to states, which in turn gets the food in the hands of large food banks. The food banks then allocate the food to soup kitchens and pantries that serve people in need.

The $150 million for TEFAP provided by stimulus about doubles the amount of money allotted to the program in 2009, and the funds will be distributed starting soon, according to the USDA. But with the economic situation still deteriorating, people on the front lines of the nation's hunger problem worry that it's not enough.

"It's a great first step, and we're grateful to the administration for putting those funds into TEFAP," said Taylor, whose parent agency is set to receive about $6 million more in food this year because of the stimulus package. "But it's not enough to cover all the people coming in and requesting emergency food assistance."

The $150 million is half of what Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks that advocates in Washington for food assistance programs, sought from Congress. Feeding America said its member food banks are reporting a 30% increase in the number of people seeking assistance over a year ago, and 72% of food banks have been unable to adequately meet demand.

New York Gov. David Paterson's office estimates that 3.5 million New Yorkers will require some form of food assistance in 2009. New York City Food Bank, the largest in the country, said that 2 million of those people will have never accessed food assistance programs in the past.

One such person is Rosetta Stokes, a former postal worker who retired 10 years ago due to a disability. She had managed to get by on her disability payments until now. Thursday was her first day at a soup kitchen.

"I do have my disability, but it doesn't seem like it's lasting. Food prices are rising and sizes are getting smaller," said Stokes, who called her grits and eggs served up by the Community Kitchen staff "a blessing."

"Everything's just gotten overwhelming," she added. "Every day it's something like, 'Wow, I can't do ... what I was doing yesterday.' "

Rising prices worry advocates

People seeking emergency food have cited unemployment and soaring food prices as the leading causes of their need. Food costs rose 5.9% last year, and staple foods like corn, wheat and other grains have grown even more expensive.

"Food is the most elastic expenditure in a household's budget," said Maura Daley, vice president of government relations and advocacy and Feeding America. "Food prices are still rising, so it's hard to predict how quickly we'll see relief."

Even though the stimulus plan plans to alleviate hunger by allocating $20 billion to food stamp programs, rising food prices could still put a dagger into those plans.

"They helped us by raising the food stamps, but the food [costs] have gone higher," said Carmen Quinones, a foster mother in Harlem, who has been coming to the Community Kitchen's food pantry for two months.

"You still have to come out of pocket to make ends meet at the end of the month," said Quinones. "Hopefully this stimulus package will provide more funds for us and more jobs. That's what it's all about - creating jobs and getting people off the system."

Stimulus: A good start

Some experts are optimistic that the recovery plan's aim of creating or saving 3.5 million jobs over the next two years will indirectly help the hunger situation.

"The more preventative work we can do, obviously the better," said Aine Duggan, vice president of government relations at the New York City Food Bank. "The more jobs we create at this time, then the less people we'll see turning to emergency food programs."

Still, Duggan said organizations that work with the huger issue are readying themselves for even greater demand for food banks' services in 2009 than in 2008. She expects resources to be stretched thin but said the stimulus money will help.

"The message with the economic stimulus bill is there isn't a silver bullet here. There is no way to fix the entire problem with one bill," Duggan said. "But we can certainly provide assistance to people who are most in need - at least in a temporary way."

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