Zeng Yua Ma waits for food at South Hayward Parish, which is run by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. The drought is expected to drive food prices up as donations go down. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
The effects of California’s drought could soon hit the state’s food banks, which serve 2 million of its poorest residents. Fresh produce accounts for more than half the handouts at Bay Area food banks, but with an estimated minimum of 500,000 acres to be fallowed in California, growers will have fewer fruits and vegetables to donate. With less local supply, food prices will spike, increasing as much as 34 percent for a head of lettuce and 18 percent for tomatoes, according to an Arizona State University study released last week. With fewer fields planted, there could be as many as 20,000 unemployed agricultural workers who will need more food handouts, especially in the Central Valley. And if urban food banks like those in Oakland and San Francisco can’t get produce from the valley, which grows a third of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, their transportation costs to haul in out-of-state produce will soar. Sue Sigler, head of the California Association of Food Banks, calls it “a perfect storm” of drought-related factors.
“It’s not like we can raise our prices – everything is free,” said Paul Ash, director of the San Francisco/Marin Food Bank, which distributes 149,000 meals a day across the two counties. “Not knowing (what the drought’s effect will be) is a real frustration. We have to be planners, and it’s hard to do that right now.”  The Alameda County Community Food Bank expects to distribute roughly 17.8 million pounds of produce next year – about 14.5 million of that amount via the California Association of Food Banks. The Alameda County food bank pays 11 cents a pound to cover picking, packing and freight costs. Even a 1 cent per pound increase could mean $145,000 in additional costs. With an annual budget of $12 million, the organization can’t take too many hits like that. “There’s absolutely a lot of nervousness here,” said Allison Pratt, director of policy and services at the Alameda County food bank. More