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Shortages Hit Distribution of Surplus Food

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of low-income San Diego County residents who depend on U. S. Department of Agriculture commodities to supplement their diets are no longer receiving food because of a nationwide cutback.

The inventory of the Neighborhood House Assn.'s San Diego Food Bank, which heads the county’s distribution network of more than 20 million pounds of food, has been cut because of the continuing drought nationwide and a strong commercial market for the surplus food, said organization director Jimmy Wilkens.

More than 53,000 county households considered low income under government standards were receiving allocations of cheese, butter, dry milk, honey, cornmeal, flour and rice in January, according to Food Bank statistics. But, because certain goods are no longer available, only 44,000 households are expected to receive commodities by the end of September.

‘No Longer Available’

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“Cheese, rice and honey are no longer available for distribution,” Wilkens said. “We expect quantities of flour, cornmeal and butter to remain at the same levels, however nonfat dry milk will probably not be available after September.”

A USDA spokeswoman estimated the current level of available commodities at half the 1987 levels. However, the spokeswoman said the supply of rice, honey and “especially cheese” declined more than expected, while supplies of nonfat milk remained questionable.

“We were told around the first of the year that there would be cutbacks,” Wilkens said. “We didn’t detect a shortage in our deliveries until around May, though. We were forced to cut the amount of available commodities 15% at that time; now it’s down more than 50%,” he said.

More than 10,000 senior citizens and 20,000 children make up the households served through the program, said Howard Cary, executive director of NHA.

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“The cutback has had a negative impact, especially among those who can’t, for whatever reason, provide for themselves,” Cary said. “The fact that these people are eligible to receive the commodities indicates that they won’t be able to meet their nutritional requirements without some assistance.”

At one distribution site Friday, more than 400 people picked up allotments of butter, flour, milk and cornmeal--a scaled-down version of what they usually receive. Some arrived as early as 6 a.m. to be among the first in line for an 8 a.m. opening at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Rancho Penasquitos.

Serves 425 People

The site, which serves an average of 425 people a month, has picked up more than half of that number from another site that closed because of the shortage of food, said Shirley McGill, Food Bank program monitor.

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“Quite a few of the people who used to get commodities are no longer taking advantage of the program because they aren’t getting things that they really need like they used to,” McGill said. “And sometimes distribution sites run out of commodities before everyone can be served.”

After talking with McGill, one woman decided she would rather not wait for any commodities if cheese was no longer available.

“She is not the first to do that,” McGill said. “That’s (another reason) the number of households now receiving commodities has fallen drastically. People just don’t think the program is worth anything if they aren’t going to receive items that they use.”

Teodoro Averajao, a Filipino immigrant living in Poway, said he and his seven family members appreciate any assistance they get. “We can hardly do anything outside of necessities because of our limited income,” Averajao said, although he declined to say what he did for a living. “There are three of us in the family working and we can barely make ends meet.”

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Debbie Johnston, a housewife and mother of three children, said she doesn’t mind standing in line so long before the distribution site opens each month if it means she can pick up items her family might otherwise have to do without. “The government is providing us with what it can, I guess. But I’m not going to complain because any help is better than no help at all,” she said.

“I would be a fool to complain about not getting a particular food,” Johnston said. “At least we’re still getting something .”

With two of her children in tow, Johnston was one of the first people in line, which stretched midway into the church’s parking lot at one point. As she made her way through the church doors, picked up her family’s allocation of commodities--estimated to be worth about $10 at market value--and headed to her car, hundreds of other people waited for their turn. Some rested on their canes or walkers, some sat in lawn chairs, some read books or magazines, and others just talked.

McGill said that scene is repeated at 105 distribution sites a month. “The program transcends racial and ethnic barriers,” McGill said. “Southeast San Diego has distribution sites just as Rancho Penasquitos has one.”

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Although complaints about the shortage of certain commodities are rampant, the Food Bank rotates its supply to make sure a particular area is not receiving more of one commodity than another. “The need is there, and as long as there is something to give out, we’ll be doing so,” McGill said.


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