FALLS CHURCH, Va. — If Food For All has learned one thing over the last two decades, it is to go with the flow and stay focused on the mission at hand.
Along the way, the nonprofit food-relief organization has witnessed famine in developing countries, the 9/11 terrorist attack, a tsunami and several destructive hurricanes. Now Food For All, which supports hundreds of designated charities each year through its supermarket-sponsored fund-raisers, may be facing its most formidable challenge ever: the economic crisis. The faltering global economy threatens to undermine the ability of food shoppers to generously fund programs to support those in need.
Even before FFA's holiday campaign kicked in this month, Denis Zegar, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit here, began to see erratic blips coming in on donations in September with its hunger awareness drives. Declines were experienced in the West, and erratic contributions were registered at participating stores in the East. “September was when the economy truly started going to hell in a handbasket. Now it's getting worse,” said Zegar.
It is getting worse at a time that is a critical fund-raising period for Food For All, since about 80% of its funding is generated during the holiday period, and the need is escalating as the economy has disintegrated. This is the first year in Zegar's six years at Food For All that the organization is not exceeding its $5 million budget goal, he said.
“In this kind of climate, breaking even is a good thing,” Zegar said. “That is not happening with many food banks and our other charities right now.”
High unemployment figures — the highest in 14 years — are driving the need exponentially. The fact that it is a global economic crisis makes it doubly difficult for Food For All, which has its roots in famine relief efforts in Africa.
“Internationally, the poverty level is unbelievable, because of what is occurring in many countries. There is tremendous pressure from international charities, and there is only so much to go around.”
This year, Food For All has funded programs in Haiti, Gaza, Bosnia, Zambia, India and Belize. But unlike funding food distribution in the United States, funding international programs can make a huge impact for a relatively small contribution, because the programs are sustainable, Zegar explained.
“When funding international programs, there is almost an immediate benefit, and the immediate benefit is sustainability,” said Zegar. Funding microfinance banks that lend money for seed, sewing machines and other self-sustaining programs can accomplish this goal.
Zegar said Food For All can take $50,000 and make a difference for an entire village overseas, but that same $50,000 can be a mere drop in the bucket in the United States. “That can be frustrating,” said Zegar, who explained that handing out food to the hungry doesn't alleviate the main problems associated with the inability to be self-sufficient.
BEYOND FOOD DISTRIBUTION
Food For All's mission is to provide self-help solutions to overcome adversity and poverty. This mission has resulted in Food For All broadening its support internationally by supporting projects in countries that are in dire need. The organization also likes to support domestic programs that help individuals achieve their highest potential.
“Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime,” is a popular quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that is often quoted by Zegar to explain Food For All's philosophy.
GoZonkers, a nutrition and exercise program for elementary schoolchildren, is an example of how Food For All has tried to broaden its base of beneficiaries. Moving from a pilot program several years ago to a full-fledged program this year sponsored by Bashas', the program is designed to fight childhood obesity through a program designed for in-classroom education and activity.
Zegar said GoZonkers is “an incredibly cost-effective program” that for $25,000 can be run in 3,000 classrooms. Retailers and schools love the program, said Zegar, especially at a time when most school budgets are getting cut.
Fund raising for GoZonkers is generated like other Food For All drives. A sponsoring supermarket promotes the fund-raiser to shoppers through $1, $3 and $5 coupons at checkout. Donations are tallied at the point of purchase and added to the shopper's grocery bill.
Such drives cost the retailer nothing, require minimal labor to set up and maintain, and are effective at raising funds.
The impact the economy is having on efforts to feed the hungry is overshadowing programs such as GoZonkers, however. GoZonkers also has been a difficult program to communicate to the public, said Zegar. “The customer only has 30 seconds at the counter to see it [coupon boards], understand it and support it,” he explained.
Next year, instead of offering the GoZonkers program to retailers, Food For All will seek manufacturer sponsors. “We are not giving up on the program, because it is too great a program. Like everything else, you have to keep trying to find a vehicle to enable you to accomplish your objectives. Our objective is to get physical education into the schools,” Zegar said.
Over 8,000 grocery retailers participate in Food For All's anti-hunger fund-raisers year-round, during the summer months, or for the eight weeks coinciding with the holidays.
The organization has been successful at working with retailers on cause marketing and special events, such as K-VA-T Food City's “Race Against Hunger,” which is tied into the chain's sponsorship of NASCAR racing.
Since its inception in 1985, Food For All has raised over $53 million for national and international anti-hunger programs.
Going into 2009, Zegar is keeping his fingers crossed. He expects the economy to be a big hurdle over the long haul for Food For All and other charities. He doesn't expect a rebound anytime soon.
Zegar said Food For All is hunkered down and plans to make a bigger, concerted effort to get the word out to retailers of what Food For All is all about.
“A lot of retailers don't understand what we do — and how we can do it better than they typically can do it, in a much more cost-effective way.”
Look for Food For All to be more visible in the summer of 2009, said Zegar, when the need will be great and supermarkets may want to do even more for their communities.