Long lines and short supplies await many of the nation’s food banks this holiday season.

Depleted shelves and donor fatigue from a severe hurricane season, along with rising fuel costs, threaten to put even more pressure on organizations that are increasingly viewed as a safety net for the working poor.

National food banks and other service organizations have seen declining donations and increased need the last three years. Higher prices for gasoline and heating oil, along with other fixed costs like housing, cut into the amount of money available for food in many households.

“They can’t go to a housing bank,” Catherine D’Amato of the Greater Boston Food Bank, told the Boston Herald. “Or a medication bank. They can’t go to the heating bank, but they can go to their food pantry.”

In Florida, Boca Raton Helping Hands reported drops in food donations and financial support, blaming a hurricane season that sparked food and charity drives for displaced families. Those efforts normally would have focused on the holidays, and many are unlikely to dig into their pantries or pocketbooks twice in a year.

Food banks in Arizona usually count on large donations of produce grown in Mexico to help fill shelves at food banks and pantries for needy seniors, families and individuals, according to a report last month in the ArizonaRepublic. But hurricanes in Florida wiped out certain crops, increasing demand for Mexican produce.

Community Services in Lebanon, N.H., reported feeding 10 percent more people this year than last, while programs that supply them, like the New Hampshire Food Bank, are giving out less food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that more than 12 million American families last year either didn’t have enough food or worried about not having enough to eat.

The Department of Agriculture said 11.2 percent of American households—more than 36 million Americans–faced “food insecurity” at some point during 2003, about the same number as the year before. In 3.9 million of those families, at least one member experienced hunger at some time during the year because he or she couldn’t afford to buy food.

“It is clear that tough economic times in recent years have had a terrible impact on the food insecurity and hunger in America,” said Robert Forney, president and CEO of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

Black and Hispanic families experienced food insecurity at twice the rate of the national average, according to the report.

The states with the highest food insecurity rates, in order, were Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Idaho, South Carolina, Oregon and Georgia.

Jim Weill, president of the Food and Research Action Center blamed the situation on wage stagnation, joblessness and underemployment among the bottom half of Americans.

“Hunger rates in 1999 were already much too high, and three of the last four years weren’t recession years, so the worsening rates really reflect the growing inequality of income in the country and the harmful holes in the safety net,” he said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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