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Local nonprofits feeling the pinch as holiday season approaches

by Keith Barber

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Clyde Fitzgerald, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina (right), inspects a can of donated food with volunteer Nicholas Schnyder. (photo by Keith T. Barber) The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina set a record on Monday, but it’s not a mark that executive director Clyde Fitzgerald is necessarily proud of. Second Harvest shattered its previous record of pounds of food distributed in a single day.

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The 246,716 pounds of food distributed to a variety of different area agencies on Monday exceeds the food bank’s previous record of 150,000 pounds of food in a single day. A good portion of the food distributed on Monday came from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, a federal initiative spearheaded by the US Department of Agriculture.

Fitzgerald said he’s grateful for the federal assistance but local food drives serve as the engine that fuels Second Harvest’s operations, and donations are down 38 percent.

“Donations of food from food drives is down significantly since July and that is a very, very important part of the food supply,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a critical need for donations of food by companies, individuals, and faith community organizations. We are actually having as many or more food drives but the amount of food being donated is down significantly.”

The 18-county area served by the food bank continues to have the greatest need of any area in the state, Fitzgerald explained.

“The demand is up 100 percent over the past two years,” he said. “We continue to have the highest concentration of unemployment, mostly folks who have lost jobs through no fault of their own are in the manufacturing area. Those are the jobs that are gone that are not coming back. Many are not qualified for the medical tech and computer technology jobs because we have a lack of education in our area. ”

Education is key to addressing the issue of hunger, and the statistics tell the story. The national average for adults without a high school diploma or graduate equivalency degree is 14 percent. In North Carolina, that number is 30 percent. Among Second Harvest’s clients, the number jumps to 41 percent.

“We need to create jobs in the manufacturing sector,” Fitzgerald said.

“Good, hard working people who want to work, they just can’t find jobs. Of those that we serve, a little over a third of our clients have one job in the family. They had two jobs a couple of years ago, but because of the current economic crisis we’re in, they’re down to one job in the family.”

Education and job training is a focal point for the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission. The aim of the Rescue Mission’s Transformers program is to end homelessness by giving the agency’s clients the tools they need to be successful. Participants either complete their general equivalency degree, or GED, or receive technical job training and commit to getting clean and sober by fulfilling program requirements, said development director Mike Foster.

Over the past two years, the Transformers program has graduated 12 people, which Foster believes can make a small dent in the growing trend of homelessness and hunger. But on a daily basis, Foster said he witnesses the suffering caused by hunger and homelessness in the Piedmont Triad.

Over the past two years, the Transformers program has graduated 12 people, which should make a dent in the growing trend of homelessness and hunger. But on a daily basis, Foster said he witnesses the human impact of hunger and homelessness in the Piedmont Triad.

“Day in and day out, we see hungry people in our area, even the people who come to us in our program,” Foster said. “The most glaring example is through our food pantry. Sometimes it takes seeing an entire family coming to the food pantry to make it hit home that, ‘Gosh, this is a family that’s a lot like mine.’” The increase in demand for food can be measured in sheer volume of food that leaves the loading dock of Second Harvest. Last year, the agency distributed more than 13.5 million pounds of food. The previous year, the agency distributed roughly 9 million pounds of food.

Fitzgerald said that upward surge in demand is the result of chronic unemployment, and education is the only answer. On a regular basis, Fitzgerald travels to Raleigh to speak with state legislators about issues of poverty, hunger and education.

“North Carolina has a lousy record in feeding hungry children,” Fitzgerald said. The state ranks in the bottom 10 states nationally with regard to children under 18 going hungry, and North Carolina and Louisiana lead the nation in percentage of children from birth to 5 years old that suffer from hunger on a regular basis.

Fitzgerald praised the efforts of state Sen. Linda Garrou (D-Forsyth) and other state legislators for setting aside $3 million annually in the state budget to give financial assistance to the state’s six food banks.

“We can provide 21 million meals with that money,” Fitzgerald said. Each dollar donated to Second Harvest can provide seven meals for a hungry family, Fitzgerald explained, so a $5 donation at a local Lowes Foods or Harris Teeter grocery store goes a long way.

Throughout the holiday season, every area Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter and Food Lion store will have Second Harvest food bins with prepackaged bags of food for $5 and $8. This week, every area Wal-Mart will be conducting an in-store food drive with Second Harvest as the beneficiary. Those who wish to donate to Second Harvest can also drop off their goods at any Goodwill location in the Piedmont Triad.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of representatives from local nonprofits waited patiently in the lobby of Second Harvest’s headquarters off Reed Street in Winston-Salem for their turn to shop in the agency’s spacious warehouse. This is a big week for Second Harvest with Thanksgiving only a week away and a large shipment of food from TEFAP in its warehouse. But the federal program food will not last long, so Second Harvest is focused on encouraging the community to participate in local food drives.

“The ongoing food that we need to sustain our operations are food drives and that’s what is way down,” Fitzgerald said. “We encourage the community to help us keep the shelves stocked. Our agencies need that food every day. We don’t have federal food program money every day — we get that once a month. That keeps our nearly 400 partner agencies in business on a daily basis.”

The Winston-Salem Rescue Mission is sponsoring its own holiday food drives to help feed its clients and keep its community food pantry fully stocked. The rescue mission serves more than 150,000 meals a year.

“Donations are holding their own right now,” Foster said. The rescue mission has placed more than 230 50-gallon barrels at area businesses, churches and schools as part of its Thanksgiving food drive. So far, food donations are actually up 30 percent for the rescue mission, Foster said.

“Thankfully, we’ve got a lot of opportunity out there for folks to give, and early indications look like people are being generous,” Foster said. “It looks like we’re going to meet our initial needs.”

Donations remain steady, but the mission’s volunteers are seeing a lot of new faces at its food pantry.

“We’re not seeing just the down-and-out and the chronic homeless,” he said. “We’re seeing families that are underserved — the working poor, people that are just scraping by. If we can provide a couple of weeks of groceries for them, that could mean the difference between eating or not eating.”

The bottom line for Second Harvest is the agency’s need for increased financial contributions, food donations and volunteer hours, Fitzgerald said. As the holiday season approaches, nonprofits like Second Harvest and the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission are concerned that they may have to actually turn needy folks away.

“No one should go hungry in this country,” Fitzgerald said. “But there is a huge gap between what people need and what we can provide.”

Want to volunteer? Contact Harriet Rhodes at Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina at 336.784.5770.

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