Restaurants pull out of Feast fundraiser

The high costs of food and gas are hurting nonprofits, which are seeing a dip in donations as people

The high costs of food and gas are hurting nonprofits, which are seeing a dip in donations as people dig deeper to fill their gas tanks and pantries.

Those same consumers are also dining out less.

In the case of one well-known annual fundraising event, it’s a double whammy.

Ask Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State, a nonprofit organization that helps feed the area’s hungry.

Half of the restaurants that committed to HANNYS’ largest annual fundraiser — the Feast for Famine, which is being held tonight — backed out because they say business is so bad they simply can’t afford to provide food or staff.

“Food prices have risen, and their profit margins are down. We are getting concerned,” Dunlea said.

Thirteen of 25 restaurants that made a commitment to the Feast for Famine decided not to send staff but will instead donate — but not drop off — a tray of food.

“A lot of them are saying they’re having extremely tough times and they just can’t afford to do it,” Dunlea said.

The annual dinner helps area food pantries feed about 40,000 people per month.

Rick Sampson, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association in Albany, understands the dilemma restaurants owners face.

He said restaurants across the state are reporting a drop in business, especially in the past three months.

Sampson has been with the association for 32 years, and said Tuesday he hasn’t seen such a downturn in the food service industry in years.

It boils down to the skyrocketing costs of gas and food, he said.

“Our members are certainly feeling their costs are going up and up while the cost of getting the product to the restaurant increases,” Sampson said.

Many food distributors are also adding a surcharge for fuel and passing this on to restaurant owners .

“Because of the economy and price of gas, consumers have less discretionary dollars to spend and it has a rippling effect,” said Sampson.

People dine out less and when they do eat out, they tend to “ratchet down,” he said, seeking out lower-priced eateries like Chili’s or Applebee’s rather than more exclusive fine dining.

Restaurants are very sensitive to the price increases but cannot keep passing them on to the consumer.

“We are in a business where the consumer has an option. They can eat at home,” Sampson said.

To curb the impact, restaurants aren’t raising prices but are cutting back on portion sizes, which again impacts the consumer.

Mother’s Day is the top day of the year to dine out, but this year, business was markedly down from a year ago, according to the Restaurant Association, which is still tallying numbers.

Sampson predicts that marginally profitable restaurants — and he would not identify any in the Capital Region — will not have the staying power and will be forced to close soon if the economic factors don’t change.

“When your shoes wear out, you get new shoes; when the cost of eating out gets too expensive, you eat home,” he said.

Other organizations that rely on donations, including the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, are also faced with shortages.

“We are working very hard at trying to increase our funding, but we are experiencing decreases in terms of fundraising,” said Joanne Dwyer, director of food sourcing.

Another key source of material has been decreasing in recent years.

In 2007, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York received 3.1 million pounds of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities and the emergency food assistance program; in 2006, 3.7 million pounds; in 2005, 4 million pounds; in 2004, 4.4 million pounds. This includes canned goods, vegetables, fruits, pasta and rice.

The program would increase under the farm bill President Bush is threatening to veto.

“This is huge. The soup kitchens and food pantries depend on this,” Dwyer said.

She said these are surplus commodities and successful passage of the farm bill would help resolve the problem; right now, the shelves where these federal foods are usually stored are nearly empty.

Cash donations to the food bank are also down.

“It’s very difficult. People who would have the capacity to give may or may not give a donation, or they are giving half,” said Dwyer.

The Regional Food Bank is working very hard to try to find other sources of food and working with past donors, said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank.

On Tuesday, Dunlea was still looking for restaurants willing to donate food and staff to serve guests from 5:30 to 8 tonight at The Egg.

Feast for Famine is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Hunger Action Network, raising between $13,000 and $15,000 annually.

Reservations this year have fallen behind. Usually, about 250 attend the Feast for Famine event, but as of Tuesday, only about 150 tickets had been sold.

The suggested cost of a ticket is $45. They are available in advance at Hunger Action or at the door.

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