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Bayview's Good Cheer Food Bank cuts back as donations fall

If the pundits are right and the recession is relenting, you couldn’t prove it at the Good Cheer Food Bank.

The Bayview nonprofit, the oldest and one of the most organized and visible on the South End, is limiting its program because of a steep drop in money donations and a steady increase in needy customers.

“Like a grocery store, when you need to raise prices, you raise prices,” Kathy McLaughlin, Good Cheer director, said this week. “That’s what we’re doing.”

A notice detailing changes designed to stretch the available inventory is being given to customers as they arrive, McLaughlin said.

Changes include a ceiling on family points, an increase in the point price for such items as processed food, and the elimination of some non-food items such as toilet paper and paper towels.

“We can’t continue to go in the hole,” she said.

The food bank has been hit by a double whammy: a 48-percent drop in donations and a huge increase in the number of customers, McLaughlin said.

“The past couple of years, people have been aware of the recession and have wanted to help,” she said. “But now the recession is getting to be just a part of life, and every month we’re getting further behind.”

The food bank, near Bayview Corner, is funded almost entirely by donations.

Furniture, clothing, personal items and other goods brought to Good Cheer’s distribution center next to the food bank are sorted, cleaned and sold in two general thrift stores and a boutique clothing store.

Revenue from the stores helps pay for the food bank’s operation.

Cash donations go to buy food. Last year, Good Cheer spent more than $250,000 on inventory, McLaughlin said.

Meanwhile, from January through May, the food bank has served 9,029 people in the South Whidbey community, about 800 more than for the same period in 2009, McLaughlin said.

It’s the single largest increase in customers in the food bank’s 48-year history, she said, and has resulted in a 37-percent increase in the amount of money Good Cheer has spent on food for the period.

Good Cheer has spent more than $76,300 on food so far this year, while cash donations were only slightly above $38,000, McLaughlin said.

Then there are the unanticipated expenses, such as a $3,000 repair bill for the food bank’s delivery truck.

“All those things add up,” she said.

McLaughlin said changes at the food bank are designed to serve as many people as possible while promoting a healthy diet.

Food-bank customers operate on a point system. Each family is awarded between 70 and 120 points per month, which they can use to “buy” food items from Good Cheer.

The 120 points represent a family of six. In the past, additional family members would increase the amount of points available, but the limit will now be capped at 120, McLaughlin said.

Unfortunately, the cap comes at a time when more and more families are moving in together to try to save money, she said.

Meanwhile, the point price for several items has increased, especially for certain processed foods such as Hamburger Helper.

There’s a bright side to the price hike, however. Because of the increasing bounty from Good Cheer’s garden in front of the food bank, now in its second season, the points price for fresh fruits and vegetables is low — perhaps between zero and two.

“If we had to do it, it was a good time because of the garden,” McLaughlin said. “We’re trying not to raise the price on things that are good for you.”

Another change: The food bank is no longer offering toilet paper or paper towels, unless they are donated, McLaughlin said. In the past, about 10 percent were donated, the rest purchased, she said.

Good Cheer also has eliminated its gift-card program, which provided a $25 voucher for low-stock or specialized items, such as gluten-free or salt-free goods, that could be redeemed at local grocery stores.

“We just couldn’t afford to do that anymore,” McLaughlin said.

Finally, no more bologna.

“We had both salami and bologna, and we had to eliminate one of them,” McLaughlin said. “We thought salami was probably healthier.”

Meanwhile, the good news for the food bank is that its thrift stores are booming, continuing to produce a 10-percent increase in revenue each year — not surprising in a tight financial climate, McLaughlin said.

She said part of Good Cheer’s fundraising strategy is to find ways for the thrift stores to generate even more money.

Toward that end, the food bank’s collection and distribution center will remain open from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays in an effort to collect more donated goods, McLaughlin said.

Good Cheer also is exploring other creative ways to raise funds to meet the increasing need. Those include additional fundraising events, and methods to increase donations and thrift-store sales, McLaughlin said.

“We can’t spend any more money, so we need to make more money,” she said.

Good Cheer, established in 1962, is the South End’s first charity, now serving a population of nearly 16,000. It is run by 13 staff members and nearly 350 volunteers, and is governed by a 15-member board.

Despite the hard times, McLaughlin remains optimistic about Good Cheer’s future.

“We have a food bank that can adjust,” she said. “We just have to look at all the different aspects of bringing money into the organization.”

“But the best thing would be for the number of people who need us to be fewer,” she added.

For more information, or to volunteer at the distribution center, call Good Cheer at 221-4868 or visit www.goodcheer.org.

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