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‘Tsunami’ of free food for the hungry is coming. Will it be too much to handle?

$1.2 billion of pork, apples, grapefruit, juices, cheese and other commodities will be distributed to help about 40 million Americans who don't have enough to eat.

More food is expected to flow to food pantries for the needy later this year, but will they be able to handle the it?
More food is expected to flow to food pantries for the needy later this year, but will they be able to handle the it?Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / File Photograph

Hunger fighters who devote their lives to feeding people in poverty are suddenly facing an odd and unprecedented situation:

They may have too much food on their hands.

What's being described as a "tsunami" of product will be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in December. It will flow throughout America to regional food banks and neighborhood food cupboards, including the estimated 900 cupboards in the Philadelphia region.

Many U.S. farmers are unable to sell their bounty abroad because foreign nations have retaliated against tariffs imposed by President Trump by taxing American agricultural products. The USDA is buying up that food, and diverting some of it to the charitable food network.

In all, $1.2 billion of pork, apples, grapefruit, juices, cheese, and other commodities will surge through the so-called emergency food system to help slake the hunger of about 40 million Americans who don't have enough to eat.

Worried about how they'll pay for storing, transporting, and distributing the surplus food, the people who run or work in food banks in the Philadelphia region nevertheless remain guided by an often-quoted axiom of the hunger-fighting business: You never say no to extra food.

"You don't want to kick a gift horse in the mouth, but this just came on us and we are scrambling to deal with it," said Phoebe Kitsen, a director of the Chester County Food Bank.

But, she added quickly: "It would be a crime if we were to say, 'No, we don't really need it.'"

Protecting farmers

On July 24, Trump declared, "Tariffs are the greatest!"

Progressing from that idea was a series of U.S.-imposed tariffs on imported steel, aluminum, and other products from nations such as China, Mexico, and Canada. Those countries, in turn, responded by taxing U.S. soybeans, dairy, pork, apples, and potatoes, according to various reports. Suddenly, American farmers could find few markets.

To protect them from losses, the USDA bought $12 billion of their products, the USDA reported.

The agency diverted 10 percent of the total to a system known as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which funnels excess food from farmers to low-income Americans, said Kate Leone, a senior vice president of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief agency in America with 200 regional food banks, of which Philabundance in South Philadelphia is one.

Congress appropriated $375 million for TEFAP in fiscal year 2017, according to USDA figures. In addition, the USDA purchased $305 million of so-called bonus  foods with extra money in a separate fund. The $1.2 billion in food was added to the bonus stream of commodities (designated as mitigation bonus food), a quadrupling of the amount of food that hunger fighters are used to dealing with, Leone said.

"It's more food than we've ever seen before," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the Share Food Program on Hunting Park Avenue, which supplies food to 503 cupboards in the area.

Along with running Share, Wynn is the region's designated TEFAP coordinator. Her job is to secure and distribute TEFAP food for the Philadelphia area, making sure antihunger organizations receive portions of the federal largesse.

The mitigation bonus food will start to arrive in mid- to late December, and then be delivered in increments over the next year through December 2019, said Caryn Long Earl, director of the Bureau of Food Distribution for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Her agency coordinates with the USDA and regional food banks throughout the commonwealth.

Long Earl estimates that Pennsylvania will realize $60 million of mitigation bonus product from the new supply. Last year, the state saw $20 million in a combination of TEFAP and bonus foods, she said.

‘Not my first rodeo’

As a guide to agencies trying to determine how much of the wave of provisions they can accommodate, Wynn said that food banks must be prepared to receive delivery-truck contents equivalent to either a fourth, a half, or an entire 18-wheeler.

She added that a full truck of chicken holds 22 pallets, with 50 cases per pallet, each case weighing 40 pounds. That comes out to 1,100 cases, or 44,000 pounds of chicken.

"This much food is a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing," Wynn said. "I first thought about it as a tsunami, like, 'Oh, my God, what are we gonna do?' But you just have to plan.

"This is not my first rodeo. I'm trying to make sure none of it gets spoiled."

Wynn said one of her aces in the hole is Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage, a 120-year-old South Philadelphia company with 335,000 square feet of refrigerated and dry storage space that has worked with her for decades.

Still, the timing of the food disbursement could be better. The closer it gets to Thanksgiving and Christmas, the more people and corporations in the area donate food to places such as Share and Philabundance, vying for storage space.

Philabundance receives 50 percent of its total financial contributions between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, while 50 percent to 60 percent of its nonperishable food donations pile in during the food bank's fall seasonal hunger drive, said Kate Scully, director of government affairs for the agency.

People give more at the holidays, feeling guilty that they're feasting while others suffer, hunger experts say.

Making matters tougher, while much of TEFAP food is accompanied by USDA money to pay for transportation, storage, and related costs, mitigation bonus food arrives with no such financial help.

"It's going to be very difficult to move this product without additional funding to get out the food," Scully said.

Long Earl said it's possible that the state, as well as Congress, may come up with extra money to help manage the enormous quantity of food.

Ultimately, Wynn said, although the food will be a great boon to people suffering from hunger — estimated to be one in five Philadelphians — "this will not lower the poverty level. It will be a glut for the charitable food network, and then it will be gone.

"Hungry people are not going to go away."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at