It was the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes, but Kate Maehr was walking around with a knot in her stomach.
Donations were down during holiday-giving crunch time, said Maehr, CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. But the number of people — about 800,000 — who rely on food pantries in Cook County, home to Chicago, hasn’t gone down since it spiked during the recession, she said.
“That’s one of the things that fills us with a lot of apprehension,” Maehr said. “We thought we were in a short-term storm. We’re beginning to realize we may be in a new reality.”
Help appears to be on the way. When President Barack Obama signed into law the $1.1 trillion spending and tax bill, the reaction mostly focused on partisan victories related to oil and national security. But food banks cheered a largely overlooked provision they believe will help encourage farmers to donate fresh produce at a time when many food banks are focusing more on nutrition.
Since 2006, enhanced tax deductions for donating food were only temporarily offered to entities other than large corporations. A series of lapses and renewals caused uncertainty among small donors and stunted donations to food banks, said Carrie Calvert, director of tax and commodity policy for Feeding America, a national network of food banks and pantries.
Now those enhanced deductions will be available to other taxpayers, including farmers and other small businesses. After lobbying for such measures for more than a decade, Calvert acknowledged that the bill’s swift bipartisan passage through Congress felt a bit anticlimactic, calling it a “minor Christmas miracle.”
Feeding America projects an increase of 100 million donated meals because of the law.
It will have a “tremendously strong impact” for people who rely on food pantries for sustenance, Calvert said.
“Farmers want to do the right thing, but it’s hard when it costs more to donate than to leave the food in the field,” she said.
In Chicago, it could mean an infusion of fresh produce from sources like Gotham Greens, which opened its rooftop greenhouses in October. Using hydroponic technology, the urban “agribusiness” operates four rooftop facilities year-round — three in New York City and one in Chicago.
As with any food manufacturer, the goal of Gotham Greens is to sell products and make money, said Viraj Puri, its CEO. But the company also donates produce and money to food banks.
Of the 10 million heads of lettuce and other greens that the greenhouse expects to grow in 2016, between 5,000 and 10,000 heads will be donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Puri said.
Going forward, Puri expects the amount of donated food to more than double because of the added tax deductions that will help cover the cost of production. “It will certainly incentivize us to do more,” Puri said.
That’s welcome news for the food depository, which distributes food and financial support to 650 partner agencies in Cook County, including pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
In recent years, food donations have declined. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 30.7 million pounds of food were donated to the depository, 3 million pounds less than four years ago, said spokesman Jim Conwell.
Some of the decline can be attributed to environmental factors, like the impact of the California drought on produce or avian flu on the egg supply. But the depository also gets less food from manufacturers than in years past, largely because of increased efficiency in the food industry, Maehr said.
“That’s a reality that we’re constantly dealing with. … Food companies aren’t in business to make mistakes that ultimately lead to food donations,” Maehr said.
Meanwhile, the depository has ramped up the amount of fresh produce distributed as part of its strategic plan to focus on nutrition. In fiscal year 2015, it distributed 23.7 million pounds of produce, compared with 18.5 million pounds in fiscal year 2011, Conwell said.
That’s been the trend for food banks throughout the U.S., said Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America. In fiscal year 2015, Feeding America distributed 1.1 billion pounds of fresh produce. That’s almost double the amount from just five years ago.
The shifting focus to healthier food has presented some storage and distribution challenges, Aviv said. For example, small food pantries may lack the refrigeration facilities to store fresh food, she said. But the bill’s passage — and increased donations from farmers — could mean more resources allocated toward addressing those problems.
“We want to solve the problem of hunger, and solving that problem involves nutritious food,” Aviv said.
The enhanced tax deduction for farmers and small businesses won’t solve all the problems, Maehr said, but it’s one more “tool in the toolkit.”
“As we have gotten bigger and more sophisticated, and as the need has grown, we have challenged ourselves to say it’s not enough just to take whatever is given to us,” Maehr said. “We actually have to strive to meet more of the need that we see out there.”