Arizona Republic, May 19, 2008: Economic slowdown pressures aid groups

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Eugene Scott

The Arizona Republic

May. 19, 2008 12:00 AM

A year ago, Nathaniel Magruder was studying to be a medical assistant while working in the accounts-activation department at DHL. His wife and three sons had no idea that their financial situation – and the economy – would change so much in such a short period.

Magruder lost his $17-an-hour job, was soon behind on rent and other bills and trying to run a household of five on his wife’s $40,000 salary as a technical-services specialist at Wells Fargo.

“It had become to the point where there was not enough income and no way to cut out any other bills we had because everything we had we absolutely needed,” said Kimberly Magruder, his wife.


Last month, the Salvation Army helped the Magruders pay the $1,200 rent for their four-bedroom Phoenix home and gave them $300 for utilities.

Valley non-profit organizations say requests for help have increased significantly over the past year – some by nearly 60 percent – due to the worsening economy. And the fastest-growing group requesting help is made up of working families.

Tough times have called for major lifestyle adjustments for the Magruders. Their boys, ages 9, 12 and 17, usually play Pop Warner football every summer. Kimberly said the family has yet to register them for any summer activities.

Luxuries such as cellphones have been cut out.

“Everybody’s complaining because everyone needs clothes,” she said. “And food has been changed, because there’s never enough money to truly grocery-shop.”

While requests have increased, many are heartened to see donations increase slightly, too. But the non-profits need more money because the costs to help others have increased.

Gas, groceries and utility costs continue to rise and are the main reasons people seek help, organization officials said. People’s paychecks simply aren’t going far enough.

Not only has the United Food Bank seen an increase in people requesting their services, but the number of charities requesting assistance from the Mesa non-profit organization has risen 3 percent over the past year.

In addition to providing low-cost meals to people, United Food Bank gives food to organizations that also feed people.

“We’re kind of getting it from both ends. There are more people asking but less to give,” said Donna Rodgers, director of resource development for the organization. Three percent “doesn’t sound like very much, but the truth is it’s exponential, because those agencies are serving several hundred more people.”

Many requests for service go unfilled. In 2007, people requested more than 794,000 pounds of food that the United Food Bank wasn’t able to provide. This year that number has risen to 1.5 million pounds so far.

While costs for food and gasoline rise, the amount of help the United Food Bank receives from the federal government has actually decreased. And donations don’t stretch as far as they used to, either.

“The cash donations are slightly up over last year, which is comforting except for the fact that it costs us more to buy the food. We’re going two steps forward and three steps back,” Richardson said.

The number of working people with families participating in the organization’s food program has gone up 7 percent, she said. United Food Bank gives away 300 food boxes a week, compared to 235 a week this time last year. Each box is designed to feed a family of four for three days.

The program is geared toward working people who are having a difficult time financially – a growing population, Richardson said.

“They have jobs, cars, and houses. They may be your next-door neighbor for all you know,” she said.

The Salvation Army, which serves the Valley, has seen a nearly 60 percent increase in calls for help in the past year and expect it to keep rising.

“In March, we really started noticing more calls coming in ,” Mary Coalson of the Salvation Army said. “They no longer have that ability to have that cushion, because of the economy,”

The Salvation Army received 515 calls last month for assistance, compared to 295 in March 2007.

St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, which serves 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties, also has seen requests increase over the past year by 15 percent, especially among those with jobs.

“We began to see it right before the holidays in the last six months, and it’s in one of our core food-distribution programs called an emergency food box,” said Terry Shannon, CEO of the non-profit. “That program is designed to assist individuals that are caught in a difficult situation.”

St. Mary’s gives out about 18,000 food boxes each month, up about 16 percent since last year. The food budget is usually the first area people alter when times are hard financially, he said.

“The working poor and those on fixed income . . . don’t have the flexibility in their budget to absorb 20 percent food- price increases and $1-a-gallon increases in gasoline,” Shannon said. “Their budgets don’t have that kind of flexibility, so what happens is they turn to food banks for support.”

While Shannon said they haven’t had to turn anyone away asking for help, the cost to serve has become increasingly difficult. St. Mary’s uses trucks to pick up donated food and the organization’s April gasoline bill was $42,000, a 20 percent increase over the last year.

Donations began decreasing for the food bank shortly after the winter holidays, but the organization began seeing increases in giving last month. But the impact hasn’t been as big as hoped because of the increases in food prices.

Shannon hopes people continue to give no matter how small the amount.

“While there are many folks that are challenged by the economic situation, there are those that still have the capacity to ride it out and absorb it and wherewithal to increase contributions to the food bank,” he said. “It’s just a wonderfully remarkable situation how folks step up when asked to assist.”

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