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 CNS Story:

FOOD-FUEL May-2-2008 (970 words) With photo. xxxn

Gas, food prices hurting agencies' ability to deliver social services

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The congregants prayed at a gas station one block from their church, appealing to God for lower gasoline prices.

But with the relentless climb in gas prices -- topping, in late April, the $3.50 mark nationwide for regular unleaded for the first time -- perhaps an exorcism is more in order.

Members of the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington conducted their "pray-down" April 24, because the volunteers at a four-times-weekly soup kitchen in the church basement are themselves feeling the pinch of higher fuel costs.

One volunteer said she's stopped driving to the church and instead takes two buses, even though it lengthens her commute by 45 minutes each way.

The rising prices for both fuel and food are hurting the delivery of social services both at the church level and at the diocesan level.

Catholic Charities in Jacksonville, Fla., runs a food bank and sometimes gets food supplies delivered from Miami. But trucking companies have been turning down Catholic Charities requests to bring food north unless Catholic Charities can assure them of a return payload to Miami.

"They're putting you on hold, saying, 'We don't have a truck available,'" said Suzanne Edwards, chief operating officer of Jacksonville's Catholic Charities affiliate. "And prodding further and going the next level up and going the next level up and going the next level up, I found out what that really meant. It meant that there was no load that that trucking company had on their books. So those trucking companies were being good stewards of their own dollars. But we're talking about hungry people."

Edwards told Catholic News Service in a May 1 telephone interview from Jacksonville that the agency found another company willing to truck food from Miami and return empty. "I'm just hoping that with the relationship that we've set up, we can work on their humanity" to keep them making deliveries, she said.

At Catholic Charities, "we try to remove obstacles so they (clients) can be self-sufficient. Each obstacle we've been very creative in past years of trying to find a way to do that and still mentor them along the way. Now, it's one thing after the other," Edwards said, citing increased rent and mortgage assistance and $3.89-a-gallon gas. "My bag of tricks -- I'm coming up empty."

To restock dwindling pantry supplies, Edwards contacted a Jacksonville financial institution and a school system -- the region's two largest employers -- for a first-time midyear food drive. "Two days ago I got a call from both of them simultaneously," Edwards told CNS. "They said, 'Suzanne, I'm really embarrassed, but we're not getting the outcome that we were planning. I'm almost embarrassed to have you come and get what we've collected.'"

In the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., the Catholic Charities affiliate could get 100 gallons of home heating oil and pay a reconnection fee for $150 during the winter of 2006-07, according to executive director Vickie Riddle. This past winter, without the reconnection fee going up, the price jumped to $352.

"People think that food banks get everything donated," Riddle told CNS. "That's absolutely not true. ... As we all know from the news, it's costing the truckers who take this food across the nation $1,000 to fill up their tanks instead of the $400-$500 it used to cost them." People are getting less at food banks, she said, because Catholic Charities faces increasing demand in other areas.

One area is an increase in federal fees charged to process immigration documents. "When it costs $400 per application to bring a child from another country, it's going to impact your rent," Riddle said.

"It's an interconnected disaster for those people who are living on the margins of poverty, or have a working-poor income," she added.

Catholic Charities of Tennessee, which covers the 38 counties of the Diocese of Nashville, runs the Loaves and Fishes thrice-weekly soup kitchen. Last year, it served 140 meals a day on average. This year, the average is 170, according to program administrator Wendy Overlock. On April 28, the number was 238.

The client load at Loaves and Fishes mirrors the spike in Springfield, where Riddle said the client load was 525 in 2005-06, ballooned to 1,590 in 2006-07, with 1,670 already served in 2007-08. "At the end of our year (June 30) we will have served over 2,000 families," Riddle said.

Catholic Charities of Tennessee is now expected to pay fuel taxes on all deliveries. Loaves and Fishes has stopped including milk with its meals as one cutback measure, Overlock said.

"If we're buying the same amount of food it's not lasting as long," she said, adding that the agency cuts corners whenever it can, but still complies with health codes and regulations and serves a nutritious meal. "This is like running a business," she said. "You can only go so far."

Robert Bush, director of the East Texas Food Bank in Tyler, which serves 26 counties covering 20,000 square miles, said during a White House forum in March on faith-based initiatives that he hoped to get the "refinery price" on fuel for the food bank's vehicles.

Bush did, and his last bill was for $4.009 a gallon for diesel fuel -- nearly 20 cents a gallon lower than at gas stations, but still more than 20 cents higher than the food bank paid when the 1,000-gallon tank was installed at its headquarters less than two months ago.

"We're innovating more ways to reuse more food," Bush told CNS. But given the area the food bank has to cover, he added, "those runs really do add up. The escalating prices really negatively impact the way we're able to do that. We're not able to do that nearly as much as we'd like."


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