By: Christopher Bjorke, Grand Forks Herald
March 28, 2012 - Facing the choice between spending at the gas pump or at the grocery store, some people cut back on food and turn to charities to fill their cupboards. But nonprofits are also struggling with higher fuel costs.
“We have trucks that are on the road every day,” said Susie Novak, executive director of the North Country Food Bank in Crookston. “It costs us more to get food back here and out to the agencies that distribute the food.”
Other food banks and nonprofit groups in the region are feeling the squeeze, too. Some nonprofits, such as the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch in Grand Forks, have limited how far they drive.
Food banks can’t make such cut backs. Like wholesalers, they supply smaller organizations all over the region, whose clients come to them for food. The higher the price of gas rises, the higher the demand from clients as families have less to spend.
“The correlation is huge. We knew this month would be a big month for us,” said Novak, whose organization also operates a food shelf where people can pick up groceries.
Most clients do not have a choice of using less gasoline, she said. “Here you really can’t get around without driving everywhere.”
Many miles to drive
The price of a gallon of gasoline is $3.80 at most stations in the Grand Forks area, and prices traditionally peak around Memorial Day weekend.
Like the clients they serve, many nonprofits have little room in their budgets to absorb higher fuel prices.
The North Country Food Bank spent $23,260 on fuel in February and March 2011, and it has spent $32,602 during the same time this year, Novak said.
“We’re a nonprofit serving nonprofits. The only way to cover that cost is to raise more funds,” she said. “If we could spend that on food, that’s way more food we could get out to people in need.”
The food bank owns a semi-trailer and a smaller truck that carry food from suppliers and to the 254 organizations it serves in Grand Forks and 21 counties across northwest Minnesota.
North Country’s counterpart in Fargo, the Great Plains Food Bank, serves all of North Dakota as well as Clay County, Minn., covering 290 food programs in 109 communities, according to Marcia Paulson, director of marketing.
“That’s big. It’s a lot of road time and windshield time,” she said.
Program Director Steve Sellent said the organization budgeted $95,000 for fuel prices in its fiscal year, ending in June 30, but will probably spend about $20,000 more than that.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going down anytime soon,” Sellent said.
Groups serving small geographic areas are also trying to maintain their services as expenses go up.
“Not that we wouldn’t want to go out to Crookston, Thompson (N.D.) or Manvel (N.D.) sometimes, but it just doesn’t pay for us to do that,” Cheryl Westfall, store and warehouse manager for the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch in Grand Forks.
Its thrift store owns two trucks used to pick up donated furniture, clothes and other household items. It stopped going beyond Grand Forks and East Grand Forks for donations more than three years ago, and drivers try to visit as many places as they can when they go out for collections.
“We’re trying to make sure that truck comes back full,” Westfall said.
The Grand Forks Senior Center runs a meals-on-wheels program. Rather than pay directly for gas, it reimburses volunteer drivers 45 cents a mile. While many volunteers did not bother to get reimbursements in the past, more are getting them now, said Jami Schumacher, who handles public relations for the center.
Gas prices in North Dakota peaked in July 2008, averaging $4.02 a gallon, according to NorthDakotaGasPrices.com.
Novak remembered seeing an increased need for food around summer 2008. After almost four years of a weak economy, she said she thinks the demand could be greater this year if prices continue to rise.
Some analysts think $4 gas may return this year. On Wednesday, the average was $3.73 a gallon, about 17 cents higher than at the end of last month, according to NorthDakotaGasPrices.com. It said one station in Grand Forks was selling gas at $3.94 a gallon, the highest in the state.
Paulson said that, though North Dakota’s unemployment rate has been low and wages have been rising, rising expenses are still creating more need at food pantries.
“We haven’t seen less pressure, unfortunately,” she said. “We wish it were going in the other direction.”