Monday, May 9, 2005 | 8:31 a.m.
Organizers of the local National Association of Letter Carriers National Food Drive, the nation's largest one-day, nonperishable food collection, are hoping to see more donations this year because the hauls in the last three years were disappointing.
Saturday's food pickups from Southern Nevada residential mailboxes will benefit 18 local charities, and those organizations' leaders say they are counting on the food drive.
"Last year we fell down," said Jerry Penn, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 2502 in Las Vegas and past local food drive coordinator.
"What is most disappointing is that, while the food drive last year set a national record at 70.9 million pounds, we collected 574,000 pounds, down 91,000 pounds from what we got in 2003."
The local food drive has not recovered since 9/11, when donations to charitable causes nationwide took a dip because of the ailing economy.
In May 2001, the local letter carriers collected a Southern Nevada record 675,000 pounds of food, 15th best in the nation for the food drive that is nicknamed "Help Stamp Out Hunger."
Penn said last year there was a technical glitch when 500,000 Albertson's shopping bags used for the drive did not feature the food drive's cartoon drawn by Bil Keane of Family Circus fame.
This year, Penn said, the Albertson's bags, which will be distributed in mailboxes several days before the pickup, will feature the cartoon of the Family Circus character Billy hugging a shopping bag filled with food items and featuring the words "for the hungry."
Area letter carriers say last year many of their customers simply did not get word about the drive until it was too late.
"So many of the people along my route told me 'I didn't know you were doing that,' " said Cindie Lindemon, a Henderson letter carrier for 15 years. "I could see then that we were going to collect less food than in past years."
Las Vegas was one of the pilot cities to test the letter carrier drive two years before it became a national event in 1993. That year, 11 million pounds of food were collected. By the 1998 drive, five times that amount was being collected nationwide.
America's Second Harvest, a co-sponsor of the national food drive, estimates that 13 million children in the United States are hungry or at risk of hunger for reasons associated with poverty.
About 17 percent of children in the United States live in poverty, says the organization, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief entity.
Since its inception, the nationwide drive has collected 646 million pounds of food.
"This year, our goal is to collect 750,000 pounds of food locally," said Lindemon, who this year was promoted to local food drive coordinator.
Local charities say that the letter carrier drive is vital because it occurs in the spring. Many of the other big ones, such as the annual Boy Scout food drive, are closer to the winter holiday season.
The letter carrier drive is designed to provide charitable agencies larger stocks of food for the summer. That, charitable organizations say, is necessary because many poor children are home during the summer and not getting free school lunches.
America's Second Harvest estimates that 16.4 million low-income children in the United States during the school year receive discount or free meals through the National School Lunch Program, but just 2 million participate in the Summer Food Service Program.
"Every day 200 families come to us looking for a four- to five-day supply of food," said Charles Desiderio, spokesman for the Salvation Army, the largest organization to benefit from the drive. The agency received 90,000 pounds from the food drive in 2003, but just 78,000 pounds last year.
"We have had a 10 to 12 percent increase in people coming to our family services for food since last year. They need our help to make ends meet. When our food supplies are depleted, they have nowhere else to go."
Shel Kolner of Jewish Family Services, the smallest agency to benefit from the drive, said the pinch is just as hard -- and statistically worse -- for the smaller groups.
"We see 60 families a week coming to us for food -- that's triple what it was last year," he said. "The food we got from this drive two years ago carried us for three months. Last year, it lasted only about two months."
Jewish Family Services, got 6,000 pounds of food from the 2003 drive, but just 4,500 pounds last year.
Although the letter carrier food drive has been down from its record 2001 peak, its collections before last year were respectable, Penn said, noting that the 655,000 pounds collected in May 2003 was the 18th best in the nation. Last year, Las Vegas failed to make the Top 20, local officials said.
Local charitable groups say there is a misconception about who benefits from the food drive. For example, none of the donated food goes to feed the hundreds of homeless who eat in the local soup kitchen dining facilities.
"To feed the homeless there are many regulations, including the amount of protein and carbohydrates in each meal, so such meals have to be planned," Desiderio said. "You can't plan those meals unless you know what is coming in. So all of the food served in our commercial kitchen is purchased in bulk.
"The food collected in food drives is for families who prepare meals in their homes. They can be any one of us who suddenly finds themselves in need because the breadwinner of the family lost their job."
Each year about 1,600 local letter carriers -- some of whom come in on their days off -- pick up the bags of canned or dry goods placed outside mailboxes at hundreds of thousands of valley houses and apartments.
The drive accepts any canned or dry goods, including baby formula and nonfood items such as diapers, soap and detergent.
Items such as cans of soup, any size cans of meats and vegetables, peanut butter, rice, beans, juices in plastic containers, macaroni and cheese, and toilet paper are most highly sought, Penn said.
Items such as prepared foods, noncanned meats and beer and other forms of alcohol are not accepted. Items in glass containers such as spaghetti sauce or cans with outdated labels or dents are discouraged, Penn said.
The food drive is be conducted in cooperation with the Postal Service, United Way and the AFL-CIO. Corporate sponsors are Campbell's Soup Co. and Valpak direct marketing systems.