N.J. food banks waiting on DRPA

The agency voted in 2009 to give $2 million, enough for eight million meals. It has yet to deliver.

Posted: July 05, 2011

In December 2009, the board of the Delaware River Port Authority voted to give $2 million to food banks to help feed New Jersey's hungry.

Eighteen months later, the food banks are still waiting for the money, enough to provide nearly eight million meals.

"Each time we go to them about it, they say, 'We're close,' " said Valerie Brown Traore, chief executive of the Food Bank of South Jersey. "Three times, they've asked us to send information on how we plan to spend the money, and we've given that to them."

"We have expressed the great need to them," Traore said, citing a 40 percent increase during the last two years in people seeking free food from the agency. "But it seems like it falls on deaf ears."

The food banks "have essentially given up" on ever seeing the money, she said.

The $2 million was to come from the DRPA's controversial "economic development" funds, which have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in the last 12 years for stadiums, museums, concert halls, and other projects on both sides of the Delaware River.

The DRPA gets its money from tolls on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry Bridges. Tolls rose Friday to $5 for cars - an increase necessary, the DRPA said, to pay for repairs and improvements to the bridges and PATCO commuter railcars. The money also goes to pay down the DRPA's $1.4 billion debt, which consumes nearly half the toll revenue.

Other economic-development projects approved at the same time as the food-bank donation have been funded, but now "all pending economic-development projects are on hold pending review of the DRPA finance committee," DRPA spokesman Ed Kasuba said Friday.

The economic-development spending, long under fire from many motorists, stopped when Gov. Corbett became DRPA chairman in March and replaced most of the Pennsylvania members on the board. Pennsylvania and New Jersey each are represented by eight members.

In the months before Corbett's arrival, economic-development money continued to flow from the DRPA: Last year, it gave $13.3 million for the Philadelphia Orchestra, WHYY, the Pro Cycling Tour, the Independence Visitor Center, the National Constitution Center, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., the Variety Club, and the Pennsylvania Heritage Society, among others.

During that period, the DRPA also gave $3.5 million in economic-development funding for the President's House memorial near Independence Hall and $700,000 for athletic fields in Pennsauken.

But the $2 million for the food banks remains with the DRPA.

They proposed dividing the money among the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, the Food Bank of South Jersey, and Philabundance, which together provide millions of meals each year through food kitchens, senior centers, food cupboards, and other agencies.

The Food Bank of South Jersey last year distributed 9.1 million pounds of food to residents of Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. Philabundance feeds about 65,000 people a week in nine counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. The Community FoodBank of New Jersey's southern branch, which serves Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and southern Burlington Counties, distributed 7.1 million pounds of food last year, an increase of 23 percent from the previous year.

Philabundance was going to use the DRPA money to open a Camden produce market that it expected to serve about 150 families a week, executive director William J. Clark said.

"Of course, we can't deploy until we get the money," Clark said. "I'm not really sure where it's at now."

He said he remained hopeful that the DRPA would release the money eventually.

"I can put it to good use today or tomorrow or next week," he said.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.


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