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Even small efforts can help the unfortunate

So many people in our country are suffering this holiday season.

The scope of the suffering can be measured by numbers: rising unemployment rates, rising foreclosures, longer waiting lists for affordable housing and beds in homeless shelters, longer lines at food banks.

The story isn't just about numbers; it is also about misery. Some of the elderly have to make a horrible choice between food and lifesaving medicines because they can't afford both. Families with children try to live out of their cars. On a Pinellas County street one recent day, a woman stood on a street corner with two children, holding a cardboard sign asking for help. A Tampa baby nearly died late last month because his mother was watering down his formula to stretch it.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a job and a little money left over at the end of the week may wish we could help. But faced with such a tidal wave of need, what can one person do?

I asked that question Friday at the RCS Food Bank in Clearwater. As people needing food lined up out front, director of development Lisa Matzner told me that the nonprofit food bank will take any donation, no matter how small. Even if you can only do a little, agencies that work with the needy this holiday season want your help. They feel overwhelmed, too.

The RCS Food Bank, located at 700 Druid Road in Clearwater, is the largest distributor of food to the needy in Pinellas County. The staff there will accept a semi-truckload of donated watermelons or a single bag of groceries with equal gratitude. The agency even provides a special drive-up lane for people who want to drop off their small donations.

Having a holiday party at your home or office? You can ask the guests to bring a food donation to the party. RCS will provide a plastic barrel for the donations and pick it up after the party.

Just want to write a check? Great — RCS uses cash donations to buy diapers and baby formula and other items that are seldom donated but still desperately needed. It costs $500 to supply formula to 40 babies for two or three days.

Providing food for infants and children is a growing challenge at RCS. During the month of November 2007, RCS provided food for 86 children. In November 2008, the number was up to 148. Many of RCS' clients get help feeding their children through the federal Women Infants and Children nutrition program, but WIC doesn't provide enough food, even for babies. The mother in Tampa who diluted her baby's formula was a WIC client, but she apparently couldn't afford the extra formula she needed.

The number of babies and children being served at RCS has gone way up, but so has the total number of clients. In November 2007, the RCS Food Bank served 4,354 clients. Last month, that number was 6,745.

There are many misconceptions about the needy and the programs that help them, Matzner at RCS said. One is that WIC and food stamps, combined with local programs, provide all the food people need. Clearly, WIC is not sufficient. Food stamps don't cover full food budgets anymore, Matzner said, and recipients who are not working full time must serve 18 volunteer hours per week somewhere in their community to continue getting the stamps and avoid sanctions. If they lack transportation or have child care problems, serving the hours is difficult.

Local feeding programs do the best they can to fill in the gaps, but some local food pantries are having to turn people away because they have run out of food. RCS has not turned people away, Matzner said, but has to limit what it provides. RCS clients may come to the food bank only once a month, and they get only enough food for three meals a day for three or four days.

Another misconception is that food bank clients won't work and expect a handout. In fact, most of the RCS clients who aren't elderly or children are working people, Matzner said, but they don't make enough money.

Matzner and RCS Food Bank director Kathi Trautwein reported that they regularly hear new clients say they never expected to need help from a food bank. Some are even people who formerly donated to the food bank.

"I talked to one woman who said quite humbly, 'I would have donated better things if I had thought it through,' " Matzner said. "I think there's a misconception that people take advantage of the system, and some do. But the vast majority who swallow their pride to ask for help really need it."

In the RCS warehouse Friday, volunteers sorted through donated nonperishable food to assemble food boxes for the clients who were filling the chairs in the waiting room. Each box is created to match the client's family size and an attempt is made to make it nutritionally balanced.

RCS checks donated food to make sure it hasn't passed its expiration date, which often is the case when people clean out their pantries. Those foods have to be discarded. The agency also emphasizes that it needs healthy food like low-sodium vegetables. And it has a great need for protein items such as canned fish, canned meats, hearty stews and peanut butter.

Whether you drop off a bag of groceries at a food pantry, stuff some cash into a Salvation Army red kettle, or buy a new toy for the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots drive, there are plenty of ways that one individual can help relieve the misery of the unfortunate this holiday season.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Even small efforts can help the unfortunate 12/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 4:04pm]

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