TRAVERSE CITY — The week before Christmas is always a busy time at the Father Fred Foundation, and this holiday season is no exception.
Temperatures dip and heating bills rise, along with the need for food, warm clothing and requests for economic assistance in paying utility bills to avoid shutoffs and possible homelessness. At the same time, several organizations are bringing in food collected in year-end food drives, plus the Foundation is one of several distribution points for this year's annual Toys for Tots campaign.
The 23-year-old charity and its partners in outlying counties provide free food, clothing, household goods and some emergency financial assistance to about 6,000 families in need in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.
It is northern Michigan's largest food pantry, serving about 4,400 unduplicated families this year. The foundation takes no federal or state money, existing on donations and grants from individuals, businesses, philanthropic foundations and corporations.
As of last week, it also had provided $534,558 in economic assistance to 3,094 "unduplicated" families in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties. Executive Director Martie Manty expects that total to grow to $607,000 by year's end. The annual average amount received by recipients was $185, she said.
About 3,754 unduplicated families obtained free clothing, valued at $479,500, from the nonprofit's clothing department this year.
Overall, the Father Fred Foundation and its 160 to 180 volunteers served almost 6,000 families in the five-county region, about the same number as in 2011. Of those, 1,843 were newcomers to the area's human service safety net, Manty said. Another 2,850 families, however, did not return for services this year, she said.
The statistics include services provided in the outlying counties by the Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, Kalkaska Area Interfaith Resources (KAIR) and Antrim County's Good Samaritan Family Services in Ellsworth, which are other public nonprofit partners based in those areas.
It takes about 20-25 volunteers a day to keep the Foundation in operation Tuesdays through Fridays, Manty said. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for food, clothing, furniture and economic assistance. On Wednesday, the Foundation opens at 10 but stays open until 7:30 p.m. Economic assistance isn't available after 2 p.m. on Wednesday.
Some 200-250 people come on those days, Manty said. "Guests" are limited to two visits a month to the food pantry and clothing department. The amount of food they receive is based on family size. Up to two big plastic bags of clothing are available during each visit. They can shop the furniture section every six months and take two items.
Client services are not available from Dec. 24 through New Year's Day and during the National Cherry Festival in July, though the Foundation's administrative offices remain open except for Christmas and New Year's Day.
"About 5,000 pounds of food goes out of here every day we're open," Manty said.
The estimated value of free groceries given out in 2012 as of last week was $881,171.
About 75 percent of the Foundation's free food is donated, mostly through Food Rescue and the many food drives Father Fred or supporting organizations hold throughout the year to keep pantry shelves stocked.
Food Rescue, also a nonprofit, is part of Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan. It was created in 2008 by a group of local people concerned about local food and food insecurity issues. Food Rescue trucks travel an estimated 750 miles a week recovering excess and nearly expired food from grocery stores, restaurants, area farmers and other donors and delivering to the five-county's 50 food pantries in its 4,627-square-mile coverage area. It also provides free food to the Community Meals program and the Safe Harbor shelter program organized by several area churches to feed the homeless.
"We don't buy or sell anything," Food Rescue program director Trish Fiebing said. "The food is delivered the day it is picked up. Our trucks go out empty in the morning and generally come back empty at night."
During the fiscal year that ended in September, Food Rescue recovered and delivered 1,506,140 pounds of donated food.
One pound of food generally equates to one meal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.