- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., Feb. 21 (UPI) — Food bank officials said Friday that easier access to food stamps and tax incentives to encourage more donations from farmers would help address the growing problem of hunger in rural America.

These are some of the recommendations in a new report on rural hunger from America's Second Harvest, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that provides emergency food to 23 million Americans.

"Hunger is growing fast in our rural areas," said Maurice Weaver, a spokesman for the Chicago-based hunger relief organization.

Poverty and unemployment rates are higher and earnings growth lower in rural areas than urban centers, according to the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research service. Child poverty rates are also higher in rural areas than in metro areas.

Second Harvest recommends more ready access to the food stamp program, tax benefits that would encourage more donations from farmers, and continued spending on commodity food programs that benefit the poor and farmers at the same time.

Weaver said the food stamp application process takes too much time and paper work.

"Generally to apply for food stamps it requires two site visits during working hours to apply for a benefit that runs out two weeks before the end of the month," he said.

An application for food stamps is 12 pages long and takes up to five hours to complete, according to Second Harvest.

Second Harvest also wants Congress to pass the Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Act, which would expand the deduction for food donations to the fair market value and make the deduction available to farmers and ranchers. Corporations already receive the tax benefit.

Many farmers donate surplus food on a regular basis anyway but the tax incentive would encourage more of it, officials say. Nearly 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Getting food to the hungry in rural areas presents another set of unique challenges that Melody Wattenbarger knows well. She heads the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The rate of poverty among New Mexican children under 18 is 25.4 percent — more than 9 percentage points higher than the national average and third highest in the nation. Food distribution is a major challenge in the largely rural state.

"We are in an automobile dependent part of the country," she said. "There isn't any decent public transportation in most places, certainly not in rural areas. If you are out there and you're hungry and you don't have neighbors, friends or family to bring the food to you and you can't get to it — you have to do without."

Wattenbarger said there are also fewer resources to serve the rural poor.

"Here in Albuquerque there may be 100 food pantries but in some rural counties there might be one and the resources are stretched so thin out there," she said. "Some pantries are going out of business. They are so overwhelmed they simply throw up their hands."

The Roadrunner Food Bank started a Food For Kids program that sends food home with children in backpacks, a unique way to overcome the rural distribution problem.

Food pantries are set up in low-income schools, and once or twice a week, kids take food home for themselves and their siblings in their backpacks. School buses take care of distribution if the backpack of food becomes an embarrassment for the child.

Wattenbarger said Food For Kids was started as a supplemental program but about 30 schools are distributing food for their students, about four times the number they initially expected to serve.

"There would be more if we could afford it because we have a big waiting list," she said.

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(Second Harvest's Web site is SecondHarvest.org)


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