Holidays a time to give

Lifestyles: Thanksgiving Basket Brigade, Gig Harbor/Peninsula FISH Food Bank prepare for programs

of the GatewayNovember 27, 2013 

Philanthropy is as much a part of the holiday season as trees, turkey and lights. This year, several programs and groups around Gig Harbor will be collecting food and toys for those in need.

One staple is the Thanksgiving Basket Brigade, which is in its 20th year. In 1994, David Cathers started the program, which packs food baskets for a full Thanksgiving dinner and drops the packages on doorsteps of families that have been recommended by community members — schools, neighbors and businesses. Baskets are delivered the night before Thanksgiving.

When the Basket Brigade began, there were 12 baskets put together by eight people. This year, 711 baskets will be assembled and delivered with the help of more than 200 volunteers.

The message of the basket is people in the community care, Cathers said.

“I may have started something, but I can’t do it without everyone helping,” he said.

Volunteers deliver and pack the baskets as well as pick up donations to lead up to the big day.

“That’s just as important as someone handing you a check,” Cathers said.

This year, schools, the Boys & Girls Club and the Girl Scouts all have helped decorate baskets with a Thanksgiving theme.

There are organizations that serve the community year-round, but the holidays are a time when donations come in and go out just as quickly. It’s also a time of more need.

Cathers’ program partners with the Key Peninsula Community Services Food Bank. Spokeswoman Penny Gazabat thanked Cathers for his work in an email, saying the families would not get served without the program.

The Key Peninsula Community Services Food Bank serves about 2,000 people per year. Each family receives about a week’s worth of food, Gazabat said. The bread closet program run by Key Peninsula Community Services serves 2,700 people. It provides clients with bread, vegetables, fruit and occasionally diary products.

For Christmas, the community services food bank is looking for ham donations.

The Gig Harbor/Peninsula FISH Food Bank, opened in 1976, accrued $277,495.43 in donations and purchases from January through last month. And all of that total has gone back the community in some form or another.

In that time span, 2,890 families have been served.

It’s about more than food, FISH president Jan Coen said.

Food banks benefit the entire community, she said. That’s why the money and food that comes in goes right back out.

The economy hasn’t improved as much as some think, she said. There are still high prices and a lack of stable income for many people.

“We wouldn’t be here, our doors open, without this community,” Coen said.

About 230 people volunteer for the Gig Harbor/Peninsula FISH Food Bank. Even Coen is an unpaid volunteer.

As she wears a blue FISH T-shirt that reads “neighbor helping neighbor,” Coen bustles through the selves, leads volunteers and makes sure shelves are stocked. The back room of the food bank’s location — at the Gig Harbor Eagles building on Burnham Drive — is a maze of white shelves on burgundy carpet.

In a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, 14.5 percent of U.S. households in 2012 were food insecure at some point in the year, meaning those houses did not have access to enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle. Low food insecurity, meaning households where normal eating patterns are disrupted due to a lack of food, affected 5.7 percent of U.S. households. That number represents 7 million households nationwide.

There are 10 million children living in food-insecure homes, according to the USDA. Low food insecurity was reported by households for periods of several days per month, seven months out of the year.

The prevalent reason for food insecurity is a lack of income. The reason for low resources includes loss of income, cut hours at work, those injured on the job and unexpected bills. The Gig Harbor/Peninsula FISH Food Bank looks to fill those gaps by providing food, hygiene products and even clothing.

The provisions are “not fancy things,” Coen said, but the basics — canned food, flour, sugar, milk, shampoo.

The food bank purchases food from local stores about three times a week at reduced prices to supplement packages. They snag produce about to be pulled from the shelves and damaged cans, for example.

From Target this month, the shelves at the food bank had several bottles of bubble bath, wrapped in plastic due to leakage. Hygiene products occupy a whole shelf in the building. The food bank hands out toiletries, such as toilet paper and shampoo.

A luxury item that is not included in the food bank’s bulk purchases is Kleenex. It’s something many can do without — using spare toilet paper instead — but people enjoy having it, Coen said.

It’s these products, different from sustenance, that make people “feel human,” Coen said. Even cat and dog food is available through the food bank.

Annual holiday drives are a boon to food banks. This year, among others, the Peninsula High School DECA class collected food outside Albertsons last Wednesday.

DECA is the Distributive Education Clubs of America, a nationwide program that teaches high school students marketing and business skills.

Student Justin Crippen, a junior, was handing out fliers to shoppers who headed into the store, and he reminded them they could pick up a can or two to drop in the collection box.

The Albertsons box was part of a weeklong food drive the DECA class organized at the high school.

Lauren Mercuri and Julia Kilcup, both juniors at Peninsula High, were minding the booth. When the drive began at 3 p.m., there already was a $20 donation. That will buy turkeys for the baskets, Kilcup and Mercuri said.

Both had previously donated to food drives, but they had never run one. Crippen said by Friday night, the drive had collected 1,200 cans of food and raised more than $200.

The Gig Harbor/Peninsula FISH Food Bank does not have a special Thanksgiving program, but it does tailor the bags of food to include holiday staples.

The food bank focuses on a Christmas program. Food baskets will be delivered on Dec. 19-20. Donated toys will be delivered on Dec. 16-17.

Financial donations will be used to purchase ham, turkey, milk, butter, fresh produce and eggs. Foods needed via donation include cereal, fruit juice, canned goods, peanut butter, pasta mixes and other non-perishables.

The food bank’s hours are from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday and Friday, and from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. The bank is closed on Tuesdays and legal holidays. Donations can be dropped off during open hours.

At Key Peninsula Community Services, donations are needed year-round, Gazabat said. Although some don’t have the means for a $300 donation, a monthly gift of $25 adds up over time, she said.

For the toy drive, the bank is looking for unwrapped gifts for youths from infant to teen. A specific need is gifts for preteens and teenagers. The donation list suggests gift cards for boys and girls, clothing such as hats and gloves, games, CDs and DVDs, hair dryers and makeup.

Holiday giving is a way to let the community know that those in need don’t have to miss out on the festive meals. As Cathers put the message of the Basket Brigade: “It’s just someone who cares. We want you to have a good Turkey Day.”

Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at karen.miller@ gateline.com.

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