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Need still exists for food donations after holiday season ends

On a snowy December morning just days before Christmas, Jeff Raddatz greeted volunteers to a South Jordan, Utah, church parking lot with a hug. He handed them an orange five-gallon jug and a large silver crock pot to load into the back of two long white trailers filled with the propane tanks and sets of long tables and chairs.

For the seventh consecutive year, Raddatz, a South Jordan resident, coordinated a breakfast for the homeless men and women in Salt Lake City.

With Christmas now come and gone, many people are feeling the sense of goodwill that comes from giving to those in need, but according to Jennifer Errico, communications director for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the pangs of hunger are felt the sharpest during the months just after the holidays.

"In January and February, the donations just trickle in," Errico said. "Those months are our biggest need."

According to Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, 49 million Americans, including nearly 16 million children, are food insecure — living at the risk of hunger. The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of access, at times. to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle.

It's a need that comes not once a year, but rather, every day, and Raddatz has seen this first hand.

Hours after meeting in a snowy parking lot, homeless men and women, some of them dressed in stained oversized coats and ragged scarves, braved the snow and the cold to walk to Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park for a hot meal, served by Raddatz and his volunteers.

For Raddatz, giving isn't just for the 300 people he fed days before Christmas. In fact, he schedules his life around it. For him, it's a weekly effort to give food to those in need, which is exactly what organizations like the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank are hoping for.

Help spread thin

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, one of the largest in the country, sees a surge in donations every holiday season, said Errico.

The food bank, which distributes more than one million pounds of food each week, receives 30 percent of monetary donations in the final three months of the year.

"We have a huge volume of volunteers that come in. We had over 150 the other morning, and we have seen huge food drive participation from schools, churches and offices," Errico said.

And this isn't an uncommon pattern for food banks all over the nation, she said.

Charity Navigator's Holiday Giving Guide reported a survey from Ask Your Target Market on the number of people who give to charitable organizations over the holidays. According to the survey, 57 percent give to charity, 63 percent of which give items like nonperishable foods and home goods.

But it's the months after the holidays that cut the deepest.

Errico said the need would be easily filled if more people would give a few hours of their time and a few resources.

"We are really grateful for the end of the year push," Errico said. "It keeps us going all year, but there is a big push for us to keep awareness up all year round."

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank serves one million people a year, 400,000 of whom are children.

In spite of the Christmas giving, the need still exists during the summer months when children and teens are out of school. To displace this need, the food bank kicks off a month-long campaign in July involving local media and grocery stores.

Hunger in America

Hunger is a national issue that's growing.

The 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, conducted by the mayors of the United States Conference of Mayors, found that in the 25 cities included in the survey, emergency food assistance requests increased 83 percent over the previous year. Cities surveyed include Salt Lake City, Boston, St. Paul, and Phoenix.

According to the study, 58 percent of the requests came from families, 43 percent were from people who were employed, 21 percent from the elderly and 9 percent from homeless people.

The survey, which has been published annually for the past 31 years, is a way to see what kind of requests are being made for food assistance and main contributors to the requests, said Eugene Lowe, the assistant executive director for the United States Conference of Mayors.

The key contributing factor to food requests this year was unemployment.

"Unemployment is going down, but nevertheless unemployment still exists," Lowe said. "People are looking for food assistance because (they) don't have jobs and because their wages are so low they can't make it through the entire month."

Lowe said that this survey is not indicative of the nation, rather just the cities surveyed. However, in the past it has shown trends for both hunger and homelessness in the surveyed cities that eventually are manifested on a national level.

From these trends, Lowe said his organization's role is to educate Congress on what is happening on the hunger and homelessness front, especially in light of the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.

Additionally, the survey shows successful measures the surveyed cities are taking to fight hunger and homelessness.

In Washington D.C., this fall, the Capital Area Food Bank will introduce a Mobile Marketplace that will distribute food to needy families in the region. The Mobile Marketplace will have a farmer's market-type feel, and distribute fresh fruits and vegetables.

Each month, a mobile market will be able to deliver 9,000 pounds of fresh produce to 300 families — the equivalent of 7,500 meals.

Helping with purpose

For Raddatz, giving has become a way of life. Each week, his nonprofit, Food Rescue, collects bread and baked goods that are approaching their sell-by date from a local Winco and Costco to distribute to his growing network of needy families in his Salt Lake community.

Raddatz, who took over the nonprofit for a friend two years ago, has been distributing the bread for the past five years. It requires at least two pick-up days a week.

Over the year, his network has been growing. It spreads by word of mouth, and whenever Raddatz hears of a need. Any leftover food, Raddatz takes to the local homeless shelter or rescue mission.

It helps up to 300 families a week that come from all walks of life, Raddatz said. Some who ordinarily wouldn't feel inclined to ask a food pantry for help will go to Raddatz who they consider a friend.

In the future, Raddatz hopes to raise enough money to buy a refrigerated truck to deliver meat and produce in addition to the bread.

"Everything we have is ours to give," he said.

The year-round need

"This mindset (of giving) is sorely needed," Lowe said, "As there is still a great need after the holidays."

As many as two-thirds of the surveyed cities have had to turn away people during the year simply because they don't have enough food. It's a problem Lowe said he sees year after year.

"During the holidays we always see an increase because we see so much stress on it on TV and in grocery stores, but you don't see that same intensity year-round," Lowe said. "We try to encourage programs all year long to keep that level of donations going but there is still a need for more donations."

During the course of the breakfast, Raddatz gave away a pair of boots — not the ones from his feet, but the ones he stuck in his van just in case he came across someone who needed them.

As he pulled away from the park after the meal, he realized he had taken out the insoles and left them in the car. With two black pieces of the shoes in his hands, he drove to the nearby shelter, looking for the man who had left the breakfast hours earlier.

He approached the shelter, swarming with people just as the snow started falling with more intensity.

He made his way through the crowd, found the man who called himself Jesus, and placed the insoles in his hands.

"You came all this way to hunt me down and give me these?" the man said.

Raddatz said "yes."

For him, it was just another miracle.

Email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com Twitter: emmiliewhitlock