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Food Shuttle in crisis

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By Ret Boney

The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, hurt by the ripple effects of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes and unexpected growing pains, launched a 90-day “fast cash campaign” to enable the hunger relief organization to stay afloat.

By raising a total of $250,000 by June 21, the group will be able to keep its doors open until new funding streams come online in July, says Jill Staton Bullard, executive director of the group.

Over the next two and a half months, the Shuttle hopes to raise $100,000 from individuals and companies, and as of late March, was half-way to its goal, says Bullard.

The City of Raleigh has already committed $25,000 in emergency funds and Wake County has allocated an additional $125,000, she says.

Bullard says a “confluence of negative events” forced the organization to spend down its 2005 reserves, resulting in the current financial crisis which has led to the layoff of 14 of its 24 fulltime employees.

The Shuttle uses 10 refrigerated trucks to recover perishable food that would otherwise be discarded by the N.C. Farmer’s Market, restaurants, grocery stores and distributors, and delivers it to the hungry, either directly or through a network of 210 nonprofits it supplies.

In 2005, the group rescued 5 million pounds of food, delivered some of it to over 200 hunger-relief programs in seven counties, used some to prepare 154,000 meals, and provided 500 grocery bags of food to the poor and elderly every week.

“Because our distribution methodology depends on wheels, the gasoline prices killed us,” Bullard says, estimating that the group ran almost $20,000 over budget in gas alone last year.  “Our budget wasn’t geared to gas prices over $3 a gallon.”

The Shuttle participated in hurricane relief efforts by sending two truckloads loaded with food to the Gulf Coast and by feeding families relocated to the Triangle area, efforts that were not anticipated when developing the 2005 budget, Bullard says.

“We’re very proud that we were able to meet the community’s needs,” she says.  “Did we lose some money?  Absolutely, but it was part of our mission to serve the community.”

The Shuttle also launched a new program last year to provide snacks and lunches during the summer for 1,100 children who receive free and reduced-price lunches during the school year.

Planning and budgeting problems caused the Shuttle to incur about $43,000 in cost overruns from the program that were not reimbursable, says Bullard.

“Part of that was our fault,” she says.  “We feel like feeding these kids is one of our highest priorities.  But we have to do it much smarter and we’re working on those issues now.”

The group has scaled back deliveries to organizations outside Wake County, although those groups may pick up food held for them at the Shuttle’s facility.

It is still supplying its 182 recipient groups in Wake County on a regular basis, but that could change if the Shuttle is unable to meet its short-term fundraising goals, Bullard says.

Were the group to close, organizations the Shuttle supplies, like the Salvation Army, Urban Ministries, Catholic Parish Outreach and Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen would be forced to scramble to find new sources of free food.

“I have 180 men to feed here plus women and children at the women’s facility,” says Rob Newmeyer, food services director for the Healing Place of Wake County, a residential rescue, recovery and rehabilitation facility for homeless people with drug and alcohol addictions.

Newmeyer receives two deliveries of food from the Shuttle daily, all free, he says, allowing him to provide fresh fruits, vegetables and bread he would otherwise have to forego or pay for.

“I’m picky about what I serve here,” he says.  “If I were to maintain the integrity and quality of the food I have and the Shuttle were gone, I would probably have to kick in another $5,000 or more per month in food.”

T.Y. Baker, president of E. Boyd & Associates and Food Shuttle board member, says the group has not done enough to educate the public about its impact on the community.

“Part of what this board is doing now is trying to get the message out to more folks,” he says.  “The emphasis has been so much on the mission that there hasn’t been enough emphasis on building a broad base of support.”

To help in the effort, the group has appointed its first development officer by moving David Reese from operations to fundraising within the organization.

Bullard says the response the Shuttle’s requests for help has been uplifting.

“I have felt completely humbled by the fact that our recipient agencies have come forward to speak on our behalf and tell people how fundamental we are in their efforts to feed people in need,” she says.

Regardless of the success of the campaign, Bullard says the Shuttle will stay open, relying on an army of committed volunteers if necessary.

“I can work a month or so without a salary if I have to,” she says.  “The volunteers will keep this place going.  We have committed people here.”

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