(April 30, 11:02 a.m.) Some Americans are already living the recession, even if economists have yet to officially declare it.

Greater numbers of Americans are looking for a helping hand and a bag of groceries.

“The food banks are all reporting increased demand by all the agencies they serve,” said Rick Bella, director of purchasing and value-added processing for Chicago-based America’s Second Harvest. “It’s not just people worrying about the economy. There is really an effect out there in the marketplace.”

With the pressure of rising mortgage payments and higher fuel costs, some families are cutting back on clothing and food purchases. People who use the food bank seek emergency assistance for an average of 4½ months, Bella said.

Some of the 205 food banks in the network are reporting as much as a 30% increase in demand compared with the same period last year.

While most food donations to America’s Second Harvest are flat or somewhat lower than a year ago, fresh fruits and vegetables procured for the food banks are setting volume records.

Produce from about 100 grower-shippers accounts for about 26% of the 500 million pounds of food distributed by America’s Second Harvest to member food banks, Bella said.

Figures from the fiscal year that runs from July through June show a record 122 million pounds of fresh produce had been distributed by early April. In 2007, a record 110 million pounds of fresh produce were distributed to food banks.

PRODUCE SOURCES

Bella said about 10% of the produce comes from retail store pick ups by food banks in their area.

“That’s a popular program now and a program we are expanding as fast as possible,” he said. Certain retailers provide food banks in their region with the daily culls they take off the produce shelves, the meat department, the deli and other departments, he said. Food banks use refrigerated trucks designed to handle perishables and are aggressively pursuing those arrangements with retailers, he said.

About 90% of the fresh produce distributed to food banks is purchased by America’s Second Harvest, Bella said.

Grower-shippers are paid typically between 5 cents and 8 cents per pound for the produce — usually second grade or commercially unmarketable fruits and vegetables — to cover harvesting and packaging costs. The price is roughly about a quarter of the typical market price, he said.

Top commodities purchased by America’s Second Harvest include potatoes, apples, oranges, pears, onions, carrots and cabbage.

The genesis for the purchase program sprang from the recognition that many grower-shippers couldn’t donate produce easily, even if they wanted to.

“Many years ago, we were asking for straight donations, and farmers and growers were happy to say, ‘I’ve got a whole orchard we’re not going to pick — come out and get it’,” he said.

Paying for harvest and packaging has paid off with greater participation in the program. Since it was introduced seven years ago, volumes of fresh produce delivered to food banks have grown from just 36 million pounds in 2000 to more than three times that level this year. More produce is available to food banks than is purchased, Bella said.

America’s Second Harvest subsidizes about 40% of the cost of fresh produce for local food banks, with member food banks paying for 60%.

In addition, the national organization provides $500 per truckload to help with transportation costs, which also average about 40% of the cost of a typical 40,000-pound load.

When produce is purchased, it is shipped directly from the grower-shipper to the local food bank.

About 127 member food banks receive full truckloads of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, he said. The other member food banks either share loads or use other food banks to pull a few pallets at a time.

America’s Second Harvest is supported by several large grants from corporations. In particular, Bella said cash gifts from the Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., and a charity associated with the Fox television program “American Idol” help subsidize purchases of fresh produce for food banks.

BIGGER SHARE

Fresh produce will continue to be an important part of America’s Second Harvest efforts, Bella said.

The budget for the 2008 fiscal year, beginning in July, reflects a 15% increase over the current budget.

“We really don’t know what our maximum is, but we have been very fortunate that America’s Second Harvest and corporate America have stepped up and recognized the importance of the nutrition program,” Bella said.