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Hunger takes no holidays

Maybe you've already given to the Sept. 11 relief effort. Or maybe the faltering economy is crimping your generosity. But hungry people right here at home still need our help.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 24, 2001


Make me a promise. When the time comes to donate food for the needy this holiday season, pinky swear to me that you won't go through your pantry and pull out a 4-year-old can of tomato soup.

Feeding the hungry and cleaning your cabinets should not be synonymous. Buy something new and keep in mind the people you're trying to help. If you don't want to eat it, why would they? Macaroni and cheese kits are always a better choice than a dented, rusty can of chopped olives.

Maybe I'm asking too much. Maybe with all the hurry-scurry in our lives, it's too much to pick up an extra cake mix or a box of stuffing. Maybe we think we're doing all we can.

I know I could do more.

As the holidays approach, many organizations will ask us all to open our hearts and wallets to help them help people in need. This year will be especially challenging because many people have already given money to the Sept. 11 relief efforts.

Despite the terrorist attacks in the Northeast and the war in Afghanistan, hungry people still need help on my street, on your block, in the apartment complex around the corner. In fact, the layoffs that followed the attacks, especially in the travel industry, have already created more need in the Tampa Bay area.

Laid-off workers have contacted Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa to inquire about aid, says Maria Rutkin, director of communication for the organization, which helps about 9,000 families a year. This year, Metropolitan Ministries expects to feed about 20,000 people on Thanksgiving Day. The same number will eat for free on Christmas.

"We see hurting people 365 days a year," Rutkin says. "When our country deals with problems like we have now, the poor suffer the most."

She applauds the outpouring of support for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks but hopes that people will double their efforts, rather than choose between local and national charities. Can you? Will you?

A falloff of food donations seemed to start before September. An economy that was already showing signs of faltering might have crimped philanthropy.

At one of the Ronald McDonald Houses in St. Petersburg, where a friend and I have cooked dinner once a month for 21/2 years, the donated pantry pickings began dwindling in June. We try to be creative, but tuna noodle casserole and open-face turkey sandwiches made from luncheon meat are not our finest hour.

We often marvel at the pyramid of canned corn, peas and green beans and wonder what will become of the single jar of jerk marinade. We talk wistfully of the days when we could find enough provisions in the summer to make a complete Thanksgiving dinner for 40, or taco salad bolstered by 10 pounds of donated hamburger.

Donna Young, Ronald McDonald house director, fears that donations won't flood in the way they normally do this time of year. The November-December donations feed house residents until spring.

"By September, schools are regrouping and planning food drives. But this September, even classroom dollars were going to different funds," Young says. "We expected it to pick up in October, but it hasn't."

September was also troublesome for Metropolitan Ministries, which collected only 33 percent of what was needed for the month, Rutkin says.

But more than ever, the needy knock on our door. The working poor and single mothers, laid-off hotel workers and the homeless, parents of terminally ill children, and children who need nourishment and maybe a new pair of shoes.

Our hearts often swell with kindness as Halloween frivolity gives way to Thanksgiving introspection and December joy. But by January, we are worried about losing weight and what to serve at the Super Bowl party.

Promise me that next year you'll join me in buying and donating a box of pancake mix or a bottle of salad dressing, regularly. I'll remind all of us now and again.

In the meantime, heat up that can of tomato soup.

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