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Food banks seek help for holidays

| Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006

With the recent passing of Thanksgiving and with Christmas just around the corner, the Alle-Kiski Valley is in the thick of the bustling holiday season.

No one in the area is as busy as local food banks and pantries. Officials there are hoping to give their client families enough to make it a wonderful holiday.

Kathy Otterbeck, director of the Lower Valley Cooperative Ministries Community Food Bank in Springdale, said her pantry serves 145 families per month.

Otterbeck said that Thanksgiving went well, with each family getting a $15 turkey voucher courtesy of KDKA. In addition, the families received food boxes with all the trimmings.

"We were blessed this year with a lot of food to give out," Otterbeck said. "The boxes were very nice this year."

The Springdale pantry is now busy preparing for the fast-approaching Christmas season, and the community is again pulling together to give needy families a great holiday.

"The community is absolutely vital to the food bank," Otterbeck said. "The Allegheny Valley School District and the churches did food drives, and various community members are donating."

For Christmas, the pantry gives out a voucher for a turkey or ham, a food box and gifts to each family. Otterbeck and about 25 volunteers organize the holiday effort.

"My volunteers, many of whom are senior citizens, are really the backbone of the food bank."

Capt. Cindy Fowles, coordinator of the food pantry at the Kittanning Salvation Army, said they don't give food for Thanksgiving.

"We give meals and toys to between 250 and 300 families every Christmas," Fowles said. "The money we make from our kettles is what we use to purchase toys and food."

Fowles said the food pantry gets a boost every holiday from the local chapter of the Masons, which donates about 100 turkeys for Christmas. She said this year, the pantry has been busier than ever.

"People have been steadily trickling in, and I think the need is getting bigger," Fowles said. "We've been extremely busy for the past six months."

The Freeport Food Pantry is an all-volunteer organization that operates out of the basement of the local VFW. It serves the needy living the Freeport Area School District, according to its president, James Ebig.

Ebig said that all of the food comes from the Freeport Council of Churches, the pantry's food sponsor.

In addition, Freeport Area High School students recently raised over $3,000 for the pantry through its innovative "Dancing with the Faculty" fundraiser.

On the third Tuesday of every month, the pantry distributes food to 78 families -- a total of 145 people.

Ebig said the pantry is in "great shape for Christmas."

"We're very well stocked this year," Ebig said. "All of our clients will have a nice Christmas courtesy of the food bank."

The New Kensington Salvation Army, like many area food pantries, gives a monthly food allotment to 94 client families. The food is distributed by the Westmoreland County Food Bank.

According to Maj. Bruce Fleming, the allotment isn't associated with any particular holiday, and the number of clients served by the food pantry varies seasonally.

"We get a lot of families in the winter, and that number lightens considerably in the summer," Fleming said. Fleming said the Army's Christmas package consists of toys, clothing, and enough food for two or three dinners. The foodstuff includes perishables, dry goods, canned goods and a turkey or a ham.

Fleming noted that the Salvation Army does other programs, too.

The annual Project Bundle-Up, for example, gives hats, clothes, gloves, and boots to needy children.

Marlene Kozak, executive director for the Westmoreland County Food Bank, said the bank distributes food to 50 pantries and 30 on-site feeding programs, such as shelters and soup kitchens. The food bank is responsible for providing monthly food allotments to over 6,000 county households.

For Thanksgiving, the food bank provided $10 turkey vouchers.

"It's a huge expense for us -- $60,000 just for the turkey vouchers," Kozak said. "Thankfully, we had a high increase in donations this year, and the citizens of Westmoreland County have really helped us."

Kozak said that the food bank was in a financial crisis last year, but an onslaught of publicity boosted donations this year.

"It's always a challenge, because people start to forget about you if your name is not out there," Kozak said.

Kozak said that she's seen an increase in people being helped by the food bank.

"We've gone from about 5,800 to over 6,000 families that we feed on a regular basis in our food pantries just in the past year," she said.

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