Using canned goods to raise money for food banks may seem like a strange idea, but for the staffs at ECHO and the Lorton Community Action Center, it's a yearly tradition that combines friendly competition and community involvement in the battle against empty shelves.
For the past seven years, the Alan Shawn Feinstein Foundation, a charitable organization run by Rhode Island Sen. Alan Shawn Feinstein, has offered food pantries nationwide a portion of $1 million based on the amount of food and money they collect between March 1 and April 30.
"Each organization receives about $1 for each food item they bring in," said Anda Ostergard, community relations director for the Lorton Community Action Center. "Agencies inform their donors and let them know the more they donate during this time, the more it'll help us in the challenge," she said.
The LCAC has been a part of the Feinstein Challenge for four years, Ostergard said, and it's "a good way to get donors to help out."
Last year, LCAC raise a total of $100,341 and earned a $747.94 grant from Feinstein's organization.
"Every year, we have increased the amount of donations we've received, but we're also giving out more food," Ostergard said.
ALTHOUGH DONATIONS come in throughout the year, the beginning of spring tends to find the shelves a little sparse, she said, with items like peanut butter, cereal, cans of tuna, jars of sauce and pasta in low supply.
"We try to get the basic proteins and food items so people can have healthy meals," she said.
As director of the LCAC, Linda Patterson said she finalized a letter to send to church groups and scouting organizations to bring in more donations.
"There are between 48 and 50 groups that donate to us on a regular basis," said Patterson. "Boy Scout Troop 994 went out to a Wal Mart in Burke over the weekend to collect for us. They'd never done it before and didn't know what to expect. There was a message on my voice mail this morning, they had collected two station wagons full of food and wanted to know when they can drop it off," she said.
During the holiday season, Patterson said there was a higher amount of requests for Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets than in recent years. There was also a decrease in donations, which made it difficult to fulfill those requests.
"We're serving a lot more people this year," Patterson said. "We are running out of the things we normally have a good supply of this time of year."
Donations to the Lorton Community Action Center can be taken to their office at 9518 Richmond Highway, behind the Lorton Library between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
IN SPRINGFIELD, the Ecumenical Community Helping Others has been serving the Burke and Springfield area for more than 35 years and typically receives about 10 percent of its food donations for the year during the Feinstein Challenge, said food pantry chairman John Ray.
"We need just about everything right now," said Ray, adding that typically, the pantry is at its lowest in the early spring, between the holiday donations and canned food drives in schools toward the end of the school year.
However, there is a bright side: Ray said ECHO has received more food during March than it has in recent years.
"There were a number of Eagle Scouts that conducted food drives for their projects and some of the churches we work with have been asking for additional contributions," he said.
Last year, ECHO raised $46,078 in donations during the Feinstein Challenge, which earned them a grant of $488.02.
"We've been doing this for at least five years," said Pat Gauthier, executive director for ECHO. "We're hoping to do better this year. We tend to use the money that comes in to buy chicken, beef, produce and other things the families need to stretch out their meals," she said.
Some items, like soup and macaroni and cheese, are going out at a faster pace than it has in the past, she said.
Still, regardless of how many cans of tuna or jars of peanut butter come in, Gauthier knows her organization is making a difference.
"We are always grateful for whatever comes in," she said. "There's a lot of food coming in. There's a lot of money coming it and it all helps."
Donations for ECHO can be dropped off at their office, located at 7205 Old Keene Mill Road, Springfield, during regular business hours of 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.