As Social Services Wane, Food Drives Shift Into a Higher Gear

Think of them as modern-day Andy Warhols. Earlier this month, a group of architects in 19 US cities looked at soup cans and raisin boxes and saw art.

They created still-life scenes and Ford convertibles, zen gardens and baseball stadiums; but they also did something altogether more important - feed the hungry.

After the creations were judged and the competition concluded, all the food from the American Institute of Architecture's Canstruction competition was donated to food banks. It wasn't your ordinary food drive, but then again, food drives aren't what they used to be.

One of America's most well-rooted holiday traditions, the food drive has become increasingly important as government has cut back social-service programs during the past 15 years. And this year some states are seeing a greater need for donations as welfare reform has increased the load for food banks and soup kitchens.

But no longer are food drives just can collections at schools and grocery stores. To compete with a crowded field of charity events such as coat drives, toy drives, and even requests for old cars, they have evolved to survive.

"One of things we feel is really important is to have some sort of recognition or celebration for the volunteers," says Barbara Lohman at the Points of Light Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group that specializes in linking businesses with charity. "You see a lot of organizations doing that now."

Among the new ideas:

* In Atlanta, thousands of apartment dwellers and owners hit up their coworkers for cans, go can trick-or-treating, and host bake sales from the months of April to November. Then they spend a festive day in costumes, parading the millions of food items they've collected for the local food bank.

* Libraries nationwide offer yearly "Fines for Food" programs where they wave overdue book fines if patrons bring in food items. In most places, one food item equals $1 off a fine or eliminates a fine for one book.

"To me, the benefits far outweigh any loss," says Hank Long, director of the Englewood, Colo., public library. "The city is willing to sacrifice for the benefit of goodwill and helping people."

* In Greenville, S.C., Judge Don Hensley has been sentencing misdemeanor offenders to bring in food for the hungry in addition to their fines. The program is on hold while a state ethics committee investigates a complaint that the sentence is out of bounds, but lawmakers expect the courts to allow the program to continue and say it could be replicated across the country.

"With this program, we help the community, the offender, and overall do good," says South Carolina state Sen. David Thomas. "It's the kind of creative problem-solving that we all talk so much about,"

Any new way of attracting more donors is a welcome development, say hunger-awareness groups. The need for soup kitchens and food banks has increased every year since 1982, when the US Conference of Mayors began tracking demand for free food and shelter.

This year, the numbers are still going up. In Texas, where there are large populations of immigrants who lost access to food stamps this fall, demand has already soared. "We have seen an upsurge in need," says Janet Eickmeyer, interim director of the North Texas Food Bank, who in the last few months has been distributing more food than usual.

And food banks expect to see increases in December as well, when many unemployed adults with no children see their welfare benefits dry up.

Food bank officials say all the new efforts work together to ease the problem of hunger. "No matter how small a donation may appear to somebody, it's going to allow someone to eat, which makes us happy," says Marla Redmon, of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

* Jillian Lloyd contributed to this article from Englewood, Colo.

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