Gas prices take toll

By Ret Boney

During lunch out on May 2, Phil Anderson overheard two volunteer drivers for Meals on Wheels say they might have to cut back their routes due to rising gas prices.

Anderson, director of investor relations for San Antonio-based Tesoro, returned from lunch that day wondering how his company, an oil refiner and marketer, could help.

Within three days, Tesoro’s president and CEO had signed off on a $100,000 donation to the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

The nonprofit will use the contribution to defray the gas expenses of its volunteer drivers, most of whom are senior citizens on fixed incomes who deliver more than 1 million meals daily to the elderly through 4,500 programs throughout the U.S.

“We’re losing volunteers left and right,” says Enid Borden, CEO of the association.  “Four in 10 of our programs have waiting lists.  That was before the crisis, and I expect these numbers will go up.”

During the weekend of June 23-25, two cents for every gallon of gas sold through Tesoro’s 475 retail locations will go to the Meals on Wheels Association, says Natalie Silva, Tesoro’s manager of media and community relations.

The company also plans a marketing push to let the public know about the fuel drive, and funds raised in excess of the $100,000 pledged also will go to Meals on Wheels, Silva says.

Other nonprofits that depend on transportation to execute their missions are feeling the pinch, too.

America’s Second Harvest–The Nation’s Food Bank Network, which serves more than 25 million hungry people each year through a network of 214 food banks across the U.S., has started to feel the effects.

The network moves more than 2 billion pounds of food annually and spends more than $26 million on freight each year, says Maria Hough, director of logistics.

And with the average truckload of food traveling 570 miles from donation source to food bank, the group is being more discriminating about food it drives to collect, she says, weighing nutritional value against the distance it has to travel.

Peter Werbicki, vice president of operations for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh, says fuel costs are higher than he planned for in this year’s budget.

“At this point, we aren’t having to cut back any services,” he says.  “We’re fortunate enough to maintain that level of service because we’re keeping up with it from a donation front.”

Werbicki is also is trying to be smarter about maximizing the use of the Food Bank’s 23 vehicles and is combing over price comparisons when using commercial trucking companies to make sure he gets the best deal, he says.

Goodwill Industries International, which collects and sells donated clothes and other items through 166 local agencies and more than 6,000 donation sites and stores, has weathered gas spikes before, says Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, director of media relations for the group.

To cope with the energy crisis of the 1970’s Goodwill began moving donation sites out into the community to be closer to donors, she says.

“That was partly a result of the gas crisis,” she says.  “That’s an advantage we have, because people bring their donations to us.”

But gas prices still have an effect.

In an informal survey conducted by Goodwill last summer, before Hurricane Katrina hit, one in three respondents said high gas prices had decreased  customer and donation traffic, and twice that number said prices had driven operating expenses higher.

“We expect to see the same trends now,” she says.  “Shoppers and donors will change their habits to save gas.”

For the American Red Cross, which collects blood donations and delivers them to hospitals, fuel is a built-in, non-negotiable expense.

Since last July, blood donations at three sites operated by the Triangle Chapter of the Red Cross, based in Raleigh, are down about 1,400 donors, or more than 10 percent, says Barry Porter, executive director.

He says some of that may be due to higher gas prices, and that he expects the situation to worsen over the summer, traditionally the slowest time of year for blood donation.

The Red Cross Carolinas Blood Services Region, based in Charlotte, handles blood collection for 82 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, organizing about 10,000 blood-collection operations each year.

More than 9,000 of those are conducted using 140 special trucks that travel to blood-drive sites and then deliver blood to area hospitals, says Debbie Estes, director of public relations.

Fuel costs are about 10 percent higher this year than last, she says, and external couriers the chapter uses have added a fuel surcharge of about 7 percent to their prices.

Hospitals are billed for the blood the Red Cross provides, but Estes says the group tries its best not to pass higher fuel costs on to its customers.

“We’re trying to find other ways to cut internal costs” to avoid raising prices, she says.  “So far, we have been able to do that.  For how long, I don’t really know.”

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