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Trend Watch: Seafood in need

SeaShare, America's Second Harvest struggle to get seafood to food banks

Most food banks served by America's Second Harvest are
    struggling to meet demand. - Photo courtesy of SeaShare/America's Second
    Harvest
By Lauren Kramer
September 01, 2008

Americans may be experiencing leaner times as a result of high fuel and food costs, but for organizations that feed the hungry, the situation is looking dire. Just ask America's Second Harvest, the largest charitable domestic hunger-relief organization in the country with a network of more than 200 food banks.

Food banks report a 15 to 20 percent increase in the number of customers served today versus a year ago, according to a "Local Impact" survey conducted by America's Second Harvest earlier this year. And more than 80 percent of the food banks surveyed could not adequately meet the demands placed on them without having to reduce the amount of food or their operations. Food and fuel prices were cited as the primary factors driving the increased food bank traffic.

"This is a perfect storm for a very desperate situation for food banks," says Maura Daly, VP of government relations at America's Second Harvest in Chicago.

"We're seeing an increase in food and fuel and increasing unemployment rates, healthcare costs and a record level of home foreclosures. This is having a very negative impact on the ability of low-income Americans to provide food for themselves and their families."

SeaShare is the largest contributor of seafood to America's Second Harvest and since April, the Bainbridge Island, Wash., organization is spending more time soliciting seafood donations. "With increases in food production costs and transportation, it becomes more difficult for our product donors to donate the pounds they've donated in the past," says Jim Harmon, SeaShare's operations director. "Most companies we've worked with in the past can't donate outright anymore. They need reimbursement to pay down the cost of production in order to keep our poundage up."

With every dollar it raises, SeaShare provides eight meal servings. In the past 14 years, the organization has generated more than 110 million servings, derived from donations from approximately 120 companies in the seafood industry.

"Some of those companies we haven't even heard from this year," Harmon says. "We're having to work harder to network with our donors and talk to them about what they can do to help battle hunger in America, because food is scarce and expensive now. These companies' margins are so much narrower, and product availability is so diminished."

The exact nature of the seafood product donated to SeaShare changes from year to year depending on availability. "We do a lot of frozen fish portions, canned salmon, catfish nuggets, fish sticks and salmon steaks," Harmon says. "Yesterday we received a donation of 2,000 pounds of frozen shrimp. But we're a small, lean organization, and the contributions we receive go directly into our ability to provide increased portions for the people we support."

Orca Bay Seafoods is a secondary processor that has donated product to SeaShare for the past six years. Richard Mullins, senior marketing manager at the Renton, Wash., company, serves on SeaShare's board of directors and says it is too early to know if the economic recession will affect his company's ability to donate items.

"Where there is food value opportunity in our inventory that doesn't necessarily have market value, that's usually what we donate," he says. The donations are typically quarterly but since they are unplanned and based on availability, Orca Bay never knows how much it is able to donate.

"I suspect that in these economic times, our customers will start looking for lower-cost items," he reflects. "Our customers are going to try and cut their costs now, too, so they'll be more open to variety and will take more of what comes off the fish. So it's possible that some of the things we've donated to SeaShare in the past, such as small portions, off cuts and items that don't fit our customer base's specifications will no longer be available. That's where we'll see changes."

Trident Seafoods has donated a combination of time and product to SeaShare every six months for the past six years. "Our hope is that we can continue donating at the current rate because it's part of our corporate culture and it's so important to us," says Jeff Eaton, the Seattle company's regional sales manager.

At the helm of the company's overrun or distressed inventory, Eaton identifies product potentially available for donation and, when necessary, solicits approval to make the donation happen. The company also donates labor and line time for processing raw material for SeaShare.

"We've probably donated somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 [in the past year], between the product we donate ourselves and the product we process on SeaShare's behalf," he estimates. "Sometimes the transportation fees are donated by the transportation company and other times we pay for the transportation. We've made a commitment to donate, and we'll happily stand behind that commitment."

To other companies in the seafood industry that haven't donated before, Harmon sends a plea for help. "We're not going away, and we're going to survive this recession. Our plea is not for our survival as an organization, it is to help the people we supply with seafood, which is far and away the most difficult resource to obtain for people who depend on foodservice. We recognize this is a difficult time but ask our donors to do whatever they can to keep their support strong."

More information on SeaShare and its donation program can be found at its Web site, www.seashare.org.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia

 

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