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Higher gas, food prices hurt holiday charity drives

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press Writer

MOBILE — High gasoline prices are a double-whammy this holiday season for charities: Donors may divert some cash contributions to pay for fuel, according to fundraisers, while the needy seek assistance for the same reason.

Charities say the surge in pump prices above $3 is only one factor in the increased demand for services. Food prices have risen. Then there’s the mortgage crisis.

“Hopefully, people will get real generous around Thanksgiving time. The need is so great,” said Sarah Price of Greater Birmingham Ministries, an ecumenical and interfaith organization that helps the needy.

Food stamps

With grocery prices on the rise, Price said, government-issued food stamps buy less.

Some $54.4 million in food stamps benefits were distributed to 556,247 recipients (224,248 households) in Alabama in October, compared to the fiscal 2006 monthly average of 542,613 (218,952 households), according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

Still, more Alabamians are working.

The state’s unemployment rate declined from 3.7 percent in September to 3.1 percent in October, the lowest monthly jobless rate ever for the state. The “working poor” hold some of those jobs.

Gov. Bob Riley said high oil prices and uncertainty in the housing market are two of the challenges facing the economy.

In Baldwin County, Michele Prockup, director of Catholic Social Services in Robertsdale, agreed with that outlook.

She said high gas prices are driving up food prices.

“Affordable housing is almost a crisis in Baldwin County,” Prockup said. She said her agency also has had a rush of people seeking help with utilities and health care — “heavy-duty things like brain tumors,” she said.

Fundraisers in Alabama report steady contributions despite the economy problems.

Melissa Brown, associate director of research at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, said Friday research has shown that anytime there’s an “economic shock” to household income “they will change their giving for the short term.”

Once they have adjusted to a shock like high fuel costs, they try to figure out how much they can give.

She recalled that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “within six weeks fundraising was back to typical levels.”

United Way campaigns

Salvation Army kettles are placed outside key shopping districts this week and United Way campaigns start wrapping up annual drives that raise millions of dollars for a wide range of assistance groups.

In Montgomery, the United Way hopes to reach its $6 million goal by mid-December. United Way Executive Director Charlie Colvin said he’s noticed increased giving.

“Let’s say we’ve got 10 companies on a list — two out of three are going to be up. We had increases in about two-thirds of cases,” he said.

He said the Hyundai plant in Montgomery has doubled its number of jobs.

As for the needy, he said, “We are seeing increases in the issues faced by folks we call the working poor. If a car breaks down, they have to choose between going to the store or getting it fixed.”

In Madison County, United Way president Stephen Kirkpatrick said his campaign also hopes to raise $6 million. Major donors — those giving $1,000 or more — account for about $1 million of that total. But the biggest donor sector — some 20,000 giving $3 a week — is impacted by gas price increases, he said.

The high cost of fuel also has a direct impact on the Bay Area Food Bank.

15% increase per mile

“We’ve seen a 15 percent increase in the cost per mile in shipping the goods from the site of the donation to the warehouse,” Food Bank spokeswoman Shearie Archer said.

The Food Bank, which supports 550 church food pantries, soup kitchens, and other nonprofits on the Gulf Coast, distributed almost 200,000 pounds more food each month this summer than it received, Archer said.

She said the warehouse in Theodore, which can hold a two-month supply of over 2 million pounds of food, is about half full.

“For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, we are feeling the impact of a shortage in the food supply,” she said.

The Food Bank has appealed to companies, churches and individuals for donations.

The Food Bank receives commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the amount of USDA food received has been declining each year as the funding for the program has remained stable and the price the government pays for food has gone up, Archer said.

USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel said since 2001, the amount of commodities for the program has seen modest increases or remained steady.

But the “bonus commodities” program, which allows food banks to share in farm overproduction, has decreased since 2005.

“A number of food banks have told us the reduction in bonus commodities has been difficult for them,” Daniel said Friday.

On the Net

Salvation Army, www .onlineredkettle.org or www .salvationarmyusa.org.

Greater Birmingham Ministries, www.gbm.org.

Bay Area Food Bank, www.bayareafoodbank.org.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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