CINCINNATI — Kroger Co. has launched a new program to donate more perishables to charities as part of an expansion of its hunger relief efforts.
The move comes amid a general effort by supermarkets to increase perishables donations, according to officials of hunger relief organizations, although donations from government agencies have declined, and some supermarkets say improved efficiencies in their operations have reduced the excess product they have available to contribute.
But as many food banks are reporting a continuing shortfall of supply, some supermarkets have said they've stepped up their donations, or at least sought to continue at previous levels.
Late last month, Kroger said it was donating 35 extra truck-loads of produce, meat, eggs and shelf-stable groceries to local food banks as it gears up to expand its perishables donations in general.
“The need is always greatest around the holidays, and this year our food bank partners are telling us the need is even more acute,” said Lynn Marmer, Kroger's group vice president for corporate affairs.
In locations especially hit hard by shortages, Kroger said it would extend local food-donation campaigns beyond December. For example, Kroger stores in Texas launched the monthlong Souper Bowl of Caring campaign last week, which Kroger said it expects will generate 2 million pounds of food and other needed items for food banks in that state.
Food bank officials say there is more demand now from consumers going through difficult financial times.
“Demand is up considerably, and the products we have gotten from the USDA have fallen off 70%,” said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest, in Chicago.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture buys surpluses from farmers and ranchers, which are then donated to the nation's food banks. However, when farm prices are strong — as they have been in recent years — significantly fewer commodities are available.
“Our donated food overall is down, and on the government side, USDA donations were down 27% in our last fiscal year,” said Stephanie Nichols, public relations manager for the Greater Boston Food Bank.
“Food banks are experiencing a great demand; that's why they're struggling to keep their shelves stocked also,” said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant Food, Landover, Md. “The industry is trying to be more efficient, [so] there is not quite as much donatable product to donate to food banks.”
In addition, the higher cost of food and fuel to consumers has caused some of the higher demand at food banks, according to Kimberly Blackburn, a spokeswoman for Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., a division of Delhaize Group.
“Those who have not traditionally reached out to food banks for assistance have been forced to do so,” she said. “In addition, grocers have increased efficiencies in an effort to reduce cost for the customers, and that has drawn from the overage of donatable foods.”
While some grocers shy away from donating fresh food because of food safety and litigation concerns, more chains are taking part in food banks' fresh and frozen delivery programs.
“When we first saw perishables starting to decline, we worked with retailers to get those products at the store level. We asked whether there was product being destroyed that we could access,” said Eric Davis, director of program development for food sourcing at America's Second Harvest.
Now, several major chains are making it possible to donate fresh items from their produce, bakery, deli and meat departments that they would have thrown out — meat that has reached its sell-by date but is still good, for example — by freezing it at the store level. Local food banks that work with America's Second Harvest pick up the frozen products in temperature-controlled trucks.
“These programs are what we're trying to grow now, to make up for a 5% drop in donations from reclamation centers [during the past five years],” Davis said.
Kroger, Food Lion and Albertsons are among the chains involved in the America's Second Harvest perishables program. Between 1,600 and 2,400 grocery stores currently donate all their surplus perishable food at the store level, producing at least 60 million pounds of food a year.
Kroger currently has about 300 stores on the program, but “in the next year and a half, the plan is to expand it to all their stores, as many as they can handle,” Davis said.
Food Lion donates food from all its fresh departments.
“With the exception of bakery, these products are those that are in greatest need and shortest supply. They are highly nutritious and infrequently donated,” Blackburn said.
America's Second Harvest is also conducting tests of fresh and frozen pickups at some Sam's Club stores.
“We're hoping to take the relationships we currently have and those that are piloting smaller projects, and expand those out,” Davis said.
In addition to grocery chains' regular direct donations of perishable and non-perishable items, many make large contributions of food and money raised from their customers.
“To make up for the shortfall [from increased efficiencies], we do a number of in-store charitable food campaigns,” said Miller of Giant Food. “We've seen increases with our charitable giving campaigns.”
For example, Giant expected to raise more than $300,000 and supply 150,000 pounds of food to Maryland and Washington-area food banks through its annual “Good Neighbor Food and Funds Drive,” which ran in its stores from Nov. 9 through Dec. 31.
Stop & Shop, in Quincy, Mass., donated 7,000 turkeys before Thanksgiving to the Greater Boston Food Bank. In addition, Stop & Shop's annual “Food for Friends” fund-raising program is expected to raise more than $1 million for 300 local hunger relief organizations.
“From each one of our warehouses, we make ongoing, year-round donations of food and food items to local organizations that are part of America's Second Harvest. It is every day, not just when there is a crisis,” said Gina Goff, a spokeswoman for C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene, N.H.