JACKSON — As the economic recession continues to take its toll on Mississippians, metro area charities are feeding more people this holiday season but donations via food drives and cash contributions haven’t quite kept pace.
“The number of people that charities around the state are servicing has increased from 57,000 to 62,000 people a month,” said John Alford, executive director of the Mississippi Food Network. “Of that 62,000, 47% are children, 24% are seniors and the rest are adults, most of whom are unemployed or underemployed.”
So far this year, the Mississippi Food Network has supplied 365 charities with 14 million pounds of food.
The charities include Stewpot Community Services, Gateway Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Samaritan Center, soup kitchens, pantries and churches. Of those charities, 93 are located in Hinds County.
“The food bank, which is owned by the charities it serves, is a grocery warehouse for the charities,” he said. “They average paying us $.04 a pound, so $50 would buy about 1,250 pounds of food. It costs us about $.10 a pound to operate and the balance comes from gifts, grants and contributions.”
Even though contributors are feeling the pinch from the economic downturn, and many donations have been diverted to Sept. 11 funds, donations are coming in at the same pace as last year.
“So far this year, we’ve been tracking normally,” Alford said. “The recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks really haven’t seemed to affect us. However, half of the monetary donations for the entire year come in during the holiday season, so it’s too early to tell what impact it may have.”
Luther Ott, executive director of Stewpot Community Services, said he hasn’t noticed a decrease in donations lately. The nonprofit organization takes in more than $1 million in contributions each year, with nearly 80% coming from annual donors.
“We’re fortunate to have real faithful financial contributors,” Ott said. “People in Mississippi are very generous. I could be singing the blues if donations fall off during the holidays. We usually get larger ones then.”
Ott said two of the service’s three area shelters, which are for women and children only, have been full lately.
“Economic hard times are really hitting people hard,” he said. “The number of people we are feeding this year is up 15% to 20%.”
More people are donating their time this year, said Kathy Clem, executive director of the Good Samaritan Center.
“We’ve had an increase in calls to volunteer and that excites me,” Clem said. “We have some wonderful corporations in our community that actually pay their employees while they give their time. If they can challenge their employees to know what’s going on, it makes a huge difference and builds morale within the company. And that’s where it starts.”
The Good Samaritan Center feeds 50 people a day through its homebound meal program or community service projects. Clem said she hopes to double that number soon.
“Poor people aren’t getting nutritional meals because junk food costs less,” Clem said. “They don’t have the money for better food.”
This fall, there has been a “dramatic increase” in requests for meals from the center’s food pantry, she said.
“We haven’t seen any difference in our donations but we really haven’t started our Christmas appeals,” she said. “We tend to see such generosity at Christmas time, but I am anxious to see what it will be like this year.”
The center accepts monetary donations and gifts of food. However, monetary donations allow the center to purchase food at a discount from the Mississippi Food Network.
“It’s amazing, you can get a truck load of food for $50,” Clem said. “Of course, food drives make us very appreciative. Colleges do a great job of helping with food drives, and it doesn’t cost much to donate canned goods.”
Mississippi Food Network’s largest food drive of the year is “Food for Families,” a program sponsored by WAPT-TV that involves local high schools competing for the largest canned food donations during Friday night football games.
“The drive this year has been even bigger than the year before, which I think shows the concern for helping others,” Alford said.
Stuart Kellogg, general manager for WAPT-TV, said 132,756 cans of food had been collected through Nov. 15. The first year of the program, 20,000 cans were donated. This year, more than 140,000 cans are expected by the end of the football season.
“The food drive is terrific,” said Kellogg. “It’s one of the legs of the stool — reaching out to the community in addition to what we do in business and in news. It’s been the most successful program because we can quantify the number of people who have been touched.”
When the program began 10 years ago, some schools were reluctant to participate, but that is no longer the case, Kellogg said.
“The only exception is that no one will go against Madison Central (High School),” he said. “They donate around 40,000 cans each fall. Starting this fall, Madison Central began competing against its own record.”
Many nonprofit leaders said they were looking for ways to encourage donations throughout the year rather than only during the holidays.
“At Christmas, we’re like squirrels storing up acorns in the winter,” Ott said. “We operate throughout the winter and spring on what we get at the holidays. If we could encourage people to give at other times of the year also, it sure would help us.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 853-3967.