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Capital Area Food Bank to start charging for produce

Tuesday - 6/28/2011, 5:55pm  ET

foodbank5.jpg
The backyard garden at Children of Mine, a local agency that provides meals to area at-risk youth. (WTOP/Meera Pal)
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Meera Pal, wtop.com

UPDATE: The Capital Area Food Bank did not institute the new shared maintenance fee due to a $1 million donation from local philanthropist William Conway.

Tuesday - 6/28/2011, 4:30pm ET

WASHINGTON - With rising food and transportation costs, the Capital Area Food Bank says it is forced to start charging members for fruits and vegetables.

The new shared maintenance fee of 10 cents a pound for fresh produce goes into effect Friday and will add unexpected costs for some of the 700 agencies that rely on the organization to feed the region's hungry.

"There's always been a shared maintenance fee and we've always tried to keep it off the fresh produce," Food Bank President and CEO Lynne Brantley says. "But with increases from gasoline and food costs, we had to look long and hard ... We looked at every avenue possible."

The food bank distributes close to 30 million pounds of food annually to member agencies who then hand out the food to moderate and low-income area residents.

In an effort to help defray the additional cost to local agencies, the Food Bank announced Tuesday a $1 million fundraising campaign to help subsidize fresh produce for its members.

"We're going to work so that out agencies don't have to bear as much of the cost," Brantley says. "We're going to look for grants that help."

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For area agencies that provide food to the region's hungry, news of the fee is being met with mixed reaction. Larger agencies, like D.C. Central Kitchen, know they will take a hit, but ultimately will be fine.

"This will mean anywhere between $6,000 to $10,000 we would be adding to our budget," says D.C. Central Kitchen CEO Mike Curtin, Jr. "But, I would say this will not impact how much fresh produce we're able to put into our meals."

D.C. Central Kitchen turns leftover food into millions of meals for thousands of at-risk individuals. They recycle 3,000 pounds of food every day, converting it into 4,500 meals served at shelters, transitional homes and rehabilitation clinics.

Curtin notes that they have begun working directly with local farmers to "glean" produce. Gleaning involves gathering leftover crops from the fields after a harvest.

"I would anticipate us doing more and probably putting more energy into working with other produce growers," Curtin says.

"Quite honestly this will have a greater effect on smaller organizations that rely heavily on the food bank for a significant percent of their product," he says.

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Food for Others, in Fairfax is one of those smaller organizations that will be feeling the pinch from the increased cost of produce, says executive director Roxanne Rice.

"It's going to have a big impact on all of the member organizations that will be stuck with the fee, but it will be less expensive than purchasing it elsewhere," Rice says.

Last year, Food for Others received $40,000 worth of fresh produce from the food bank. Rice says she's not sure if that number will change now that it will cost them 10 cents a pound.

Regardless of the cost, she says they will absolutely continue to get fresh produce from the food bank.

"Fresh produce is absolutely at the top of the desired food list for all of us," Rice says. "If we have to choose between paying the shared maintenance fee for fresh produce or buying canned produce, we would opt for the fresh produce."

Hannah Hawkins with D.C.-based Children of Mine says getting fresh produce from the food bank will still be "worth my while."

"I will cut down on other things. We're not worried," she says of her after-school program for at-risk area youth.

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News of the food bank's newly instituted shared maintenance fee comes as Congress weighs an agriculture appropriations bill that includes more than $800 million in cuts to food assistance programs.

Brantley notes that the crisis at the food bank mirrors the crisis that is occurring across the country in the housing and jobs markets.

"We're a changing America. The face of America, the middle class is changing. So many people are suffering," she says.

The food bank, founded in 1980, distributes nearly 30 million pounds of food a year, with 50 percent being fresh produce.

Brantley says it costs the food bank roughly $285 a pallet of food, which includes the cost of transportation, storage and handling the produce.

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