Food shuttle struggles

Staff WriterApril 6, 2006 

RALEIGH -- The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is used to serving those in need.

But these days, it's the one that needs some help.

The Raleigh nonprofit organization, which distributes food to soup kitchens and other groups, is seeking private donations to help make up for a financial crisis that began last fall.

The food shuttle has laid off 16 full-time employees, restructured top management and received emergency grants from both the city of Raleigh and Wake County.

Executive Director Jill Staton Bullard said the group needs another $38,000 to keep it in the black through the end of the next quarter on June 30. After that, it can get more funding from its usual sources.

A combination of bad luck, poor planning and finicky children led to a budget shortfall of more than $250,000.

Among other things:

* The group lost a contract to serve food at the county's homeless shelter: $83,000.

* Heating and electricity costs at a new building were higher than expected: $57,000.

* A new program to serve children free lunches in the summer did not receive full funding: $43,000.

* Gas prices rose much higher than expected last summer: $19,000.

* Donations dropped as many contributors gave to victims of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

"If it had been just one of those things, we would have been fine," Bullard said.

She said the nonprofit unwittingly brought some of the problems on itself.

After planning for three years, the food shuttle began a summer lunch program for needy children across Wake County. But the lunches, such as a spinach salad with mandarin orange slices and chicken strips, weren't very popular.

"We were so naive," Bullard said. "We thought that we could provide healthy nutritious lunches and the kids would just eat them."

That was more than just a nutritional problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is funding the program, does not reimburse for the cost of meals that go uneaten.

This summer, food shuttle staff members plan to blend the healthy ingredients into more kid-friendly fare -- putting the spinach in a sandwich instead of iceberg lettuce, for example.

The nonprofit also ran through about $3,000 taking food to Hurricane Katrina victims staying in hotels across the Triangle. Bullard said that was a well-intentioned idea that ended up costing more than expected.

"We just can't do that again," she said.

Other changes are being made behind the scenes. A top staffer has been put in charge of fundraising. A certified public accountant has joined the board of directors. And a new program has been put on hold for a year.

In the meantime, the board of directors has launched a short-term campaign to raise $250,000 -- about a fifth of its $1.1 million annual budget.

So far, they have done well.

On Monday, Wake County gave the nonprofit $125,000 in emergency funding. The city of Raleigh and the Capitol Broadcasting Co. each gave another $25,000, and private donors have given another $37,000.

The rest, Bullard said, will have to come from individual donors.

Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith can be reached at 836-4944 or rbeckwit@newsobserver.com.

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