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Those Publix vittle bags: an investigative report

What's really in those Publix gift sacks - just Christmas stuff? And where do they go?

By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Buy one of those specially packaged charity gift bags at Publix, and what do you actually get? It depends.

Sometimes you won't even know unless you open it. Some stores don't attach a receipt.

One stapled-up bag might contain barbecue sauce, canned stew, pasta and tomato paste. Another might have more traditional holiday fixings. A third might hold toothpaste and soap.

If you buy a bag for $5 to $9 and drop it off in the bin just past the checkout, it is gathered up by a nonprofit clearinghouse and redistributed to charities like Salvation Army and Meals on Wheels.

The charities are happy to have the decidedly eclectic blend of foodstuffs, even the barbecue sauce. Divine Providence, the local nonprofit food bank that takes in tons of donations from the supermarket chain each year, says Santa himself couldn't have picked out better gifts.

"We're very grateful," said Wendy Zella, a Divine Providence spokeswoman.

"A lot of people want to give during the holiday season, but they don't realize that people are still in need the other 364 days out of the year," she added.

Charities redistribute the food to the needy at private food pantries or soup kitchens or both.

Publix joined the Food for Families program five years ago partly in response to the high demand for canned goods during the holiday season, and now several stores participate in the program year-round, Publix spokesman Lee Brunson said. The supermarket giant donated close to $1-million worth of food in 2001, but that is separate from the bag drive. In this case, Publix sells the food at the same price as consumers would pay off the shelf. Publix officials think the bags simply make it easier for people who want to give.

"They felt that when consumers come in our stores during that time of year, those are the items they wanted to buy to donate -- canned vegetables, cranberry sauce, that sort of thing," Brunson said.

Kash n' Karry and other local supermarkets sponsor similar food drives but typically fill their bags with traditional trimmings.

Customers hoping to slay their inner Scrooge at the Publix cash register this year may be surprised to learn that the supermarket profits from their purchases. At one store, $5.66 pays for three boxes of macaroni and cheese and some granola bars at regular retail prices. But after the bags are deposited in a specially marked bin at each store, Divine Providence delivers them to the food bank's headquarters in Tampa for distribution to 260 agencies and charity groups across 10 counties that use the food year-round.

Brunson said individual stores are encouraged to itemize the contents of each bag by attaching a voided receipt on the outside of the bag. The Disston Plaza Publix at 49th Street and 35th Avenue N did not have receipts on its bags as of last Monday. But many of the other Publixes visited for this story did include tags on the bags.

Steve Culbreath, assistant store manager at the Publix at 34th Street and 17th Avenue N, said his store makes a point of sticking with the holiday theme because that's what customers expect. Bags from his store are clearly marked and include traditional favorites like gravy, yams, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

"We don't do the year-round program because they don't sell," Culbreath said of the bags. "They sell real good during the holidays, though."

That's all it takes, Zella said. "It makes a huge difference. The need doesn't just end with Christmas."

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