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Westmoreland County Food Bank needs extra

| Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

With demand for food up because of the recession, the Westmoreland County Food Bank is facing the holiday season uncertain whether it will be able to purchase 6,500 turkey vouchers or 7,000.

The vouchers are distributed to needy households several weeks before Thanksgiving every year. In past years, 6,500 have been distributed, according to Executive Director Marlene Kozak. The 7,000 figure represents the new reality ushered in by the downtown in the national economy.

Food bank officials see a need for an additional 500 vouchers at $10 apiece. As to whether the agency can afford to buy more vouchers this year, Kozak said, "I'm not sure. I don't know."

At the Monessen Food Pantry, Executive Director Mary Jo Smith said she receives a county allotment to serve 540, but the number of families it serves always increases around the holidays.

She said the local pantry distributed about 610 turkey vouchers last year.

Smith said she has mailed letters to various organizations and businesses in the city in the hopes of receiving donations to purchase more food for the holiday season.

"We want to help as many people as we can," Smith said. "It's getting harder and harder for people, especially senior citizens. The cost of everything is going up, but not their income or Social Security."

The number of households in Westmoreland County receiving free monthly food boxes began to creep higher about six months ago, Kozak said. While the number fluctuates, it averages nearly 7,000 a month, she said.

"We assume it's the recession at work," Kozak said. "Every week, we're fearful that we may run out of food to give people standing in line."

To meet the increased demand, the food bank is prepared to cut back portions - such as giving out one can of fruit per box instead of two, or substituting cheaper cuts of meat for more expensive. So far this year, officials have not had to take such a drastic step.

Surprisingly, private fundraising, which accounts for 60 percent of the food bank's yearly income, has remained strong despite the recession, Kozak said.

"I think people are giving to fewer causes," she said. "They're picking out basic needs. Food, for instance. We're in that category."

On the minus side is the fact that the state budget impasse in Harrisburg caused the agency to lose out on some $224,000 for the last two quarters of 2009, Kozak said. The agency expects to get the money eventually, but just when is uncertain.

"We hope to get both checks in December," Kozak said. "But we have no control over it. (The state has) not told us."

Jennifer Miller, development director for the food bank, urged schools to sign up to raise money for the Thanksgiving voucher program. The fourth annual Turkey Cup Challenge, which pits schools against one another, is under way with two fewer schools than last year.

Eight schools are lending a hand instead of the usual 10. It's not too late for school officials and students to get involved, Miller said.

Last year's Turkey Cup Challenge raised $26,031. Miller said this year's total is uncertain.

In addition to the cash raised by students, the food bank relies on a fundraising letter that will go out to 2,300 businesses in the county within the next two weeks. Last year's solicitation resulted in $40,000 in donations.

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