The need for food and shelter services are continuing to rise across the state. Alaska’s nonprofits provide much of these needed services and are able to do so thanks to generous Alaskans. One way to donate to the Food Bank of Alaska, Bean’s Café, Catholic Social Services, or Safe Harbor Inn is through Pick. Click. Give. Read about the great services these organizations are providing daily to Alaskan's from around the state in this post.

At 12:55 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a dozen or so cars sat idling in the snowy parking lot of the Fairview Community Recreation Center in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood.

Cardboard boxes, backpacks and bags were neatly queued on the ground as people, thoroughly bundled up against the cold, chatted with one another in a variety of languages. Smiles came readily.

One older, bearded man called out, “Hey, I got somethin’ for ya!” Handing a copy of a flier advertising the Food Bank of Alaska’s Thanksgiving Blessing out the window of a tired old pickup, he added “Come and get ya some groceries, and don’t forget your fork and spoon!”

Others waited in the warmth of the community center’s foyer, anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry truck. The truck, purchased by the Anchorage East Rotary for use by the Food Bank, normally pulls in around 1 p.m. Food distribution starts promptly at 2 p.m., after volunteers sort food, register those in line to receive it, and pass out numbers to ensure an orderly and swift process.

The volunteers who staff the twice-monthly distribution at the Fairview center are members of Anchorage East Rotary, and are led by Rotarian Anne Marie Moylan. Before seeing the Mobile Food Pantry at work, Moylan confessed to thinking Rotary was only for “squares,” as she admitted, laughing. But when former Anchorage Assemblywoman Heather Flynn dragged her to the event one Saturday, she was hooked.

Moylan and others involved in the Fairview Mobile Food Pantry talk effusively about the good feelings they get from their involvement. But feeding the hungry in Alaska is serious work.

FOOD DELIVERY ACROSS ALASKA

In Alaska, 90,300 people are “food insecure” – in other words, people who worry about food on a day-to-day basis, or may occasionally skip meals because they can’t afford groceries. Of those, 77,000 use the services of a food bank somewhere in Alaska.

Most food bank clients are in their mid-40s, and about half are employed.

Food insecurity in Alaska has increased 56 percent since 2008. Although the economy in Alaska hasn’t suffered as much as it has elsewhere, it is clear that families here are struggling to make ends meet and are relying on the state’s network of food banks to put food on their tables.

“Hunger affects 13 percent of our population,” said Susannah Morgan, executive director of the Food Bank of Alaska. “If that was a disease it would be a public-health crisis.”

Although the Fairview Mobile Food Pantry, and others like it around Anchorage, is a direct-service effort to provide perishable food aid to local residents, it’s a bit of an outlier compared to the majority of what the Food Bank of Alaska does on a daily basis. Most of its work is about logistics. What they do – and do quite well – is distribute millions of pounds of food to more than 300 partner agencies across Alaska.

“One of the things people have trouble wrapping their heads around is how statewide we are, and that we really are shipping food from Metlakatla to Adak to Barrow,” Morgan said.

In 2010, 6.6 million pounds of food was distributed through the food bank network. Unfortunately, the need in Alaska is more like 13 million pounds.

How do they do it? Well, there was the particularly excellent coup wherein the Food Bank of Alaska purchased 38,000 pounds of food from Texas for a mere $900. So part of it is scouring the country to find food and find the most competitive prices, then get it shipped to Alaska and distributed throughout the state. To do that, the Food Bank relies on private-industry partners in the shipping industry. “We couldn’t do what we do without them,” McKenzie said. “Shipping is where our toughest challenges are.”

Alaska’s food network also benefits from donations from groceries – the big ones, like Carrs/Safeway and Costco and Fred Meyer – and also smaller ones like the Red Apple Market in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood. Drivers pick up food every day that is past its expiration date, but still edible, for distribution throughout the state. In the Food Bank warehouse, pallets of donations from grocery stores are stacked to the cavernous ceiling. In mid-November, these donations included a lot of packaged stuffing mix, canned beets and other vegetables, and instant mashed potatoes.

While private industry partners are vital to feeding the hungry, the state’s network of food assistance providers continues to need support from everyday Alaskans.

Morgan relayed a story about a boy coming to elementary school with a big box of toys and asking the principal if he could sell them at school. He was trying to help his family because his mom lost her job the week before and they needed money for food.

“As long as there is a child – anybody really, but particularly a child – who is not getting the nutrition they need to have the absolute best chance of being successful, then we’ve got work to do and we need help,” Morgan said.

DONATIONS DOWN, HEAD COUNT UP

As demand for food assistance has grown, so has the rate of homelessness in Alaska. In 2008, Alaska ranked 10th in the nation in concentration of homeless people. On a single night in January 2009, 4,583 homeless people were counted in communities across Alaska.

Homeless shelters across the state were buckling under the pressure of an early cold snap that saw many of them exceeding nightly capacity in November, which is considerably earlier than in a typical year. Bean’s Cafe in Anchorage, which provides hot meals daily from its Ship Creek location, has been serving as an overflow homeless shelter when the adjacent Brother Francis Shelter, a program of Catholic Social Services, exceeds capacity. That happened starting in late October this year, and it’s not letting up.

Jim Crockett, executive director of Bean’s Café, said in an interview that the demand for hot meals has increased 20 percent over last year, but donations have not kept pace. In fact, they’ve decreased. This is coupled with higher heating and water bills as Bean’s is increasingly serving as a homeless shelter as well.

FAMILIES FEEL THE PINCH

In another part of Anchorage, the Safe Harbor Inn, a transitional housing facility aimed at moving people from homelessness to permanent housing, has a waiting list with more than 800 names on it. Safe Harbor Inn has just 100 units in Anchorage in two former hotels that have been renovated for its guests. Residents pay $400 per month in rent, and must be referred by another agency to qualify for residency.

According to Executive Director Matt Kropke, 85 percent of Safe Harbor’s guests are families, and over half are children. A report by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center shows homelessness increasingly affecting Alaska families with dependents.

“One of the things we’re proudest of is that out of all the guests that have stayed here, 70 percent have moved on successfully to permanent housing,” Kropke said. “Over 10 years that’s about 2,500 people, so we think it’s a pretty effective model for moving people from homelessness to housed.”

Safe Harbor Inn gets about 25 percent of its funding from private donations. It, along with hundreds of other organizations in the state, is increasingly looking to the generosity of Alaskans to help our homeless and hungry neighbors.

Editor’s Note: Alaska’s nonprofits provide much needed services across the state. When you give just a tiny bit of your Permanent Fund Dividend away, you are creating a difference in your life and making Alaska a better place to live, to work and to raise a family. When you file online for your PFD and Pick. Click. Give., you can shelter families in crisis, nourish the hungry and homeless, and protect those who have suffered abuse and neglect. You can choose to strengthen the arts, invest in education, and support youth as they reach for success. Pick an organization to invest $25 or more in — it’s safe, and 100 percent goes to the Alaska nonprofit you choose. So give a little of your PFD this year and get a whole lot more in return. If you already filed, you can reenter your application and add a donation here.