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Compromise needed for food bank

July 02, 1998

Bob Maginnis

In many cases, those who come to the Community Food Bank at St. Mark's Lutheran Church are the working poor, laboring at jobs where the pay hasn't gone up nearly as quickly as their rents have. So says Beth Stouffer, director of the all-volunteer agency, which has been operating on Hagerstown's Washington Square for at least 25 years.

For Stouffer and the 70-some volunteers who hand out food to those certified as truly needy by the Department of Social Services and agencies like Community Action Council, keeping enough food on the shelves might be a little bit tougher between now and year's end.

Why? Because the food bank's application for Washington County Gaming Commission funds was thrown out by the commission, for not being filled out properly. It was one of only two of 88 applications received during the last cycle to get the boot, according to Fred Rohrer, the commission's chairman.

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"The lady who brought it in set it on the desk and said she didn't have time to fill it out properly. That's why it was turned down," Rohrer said.

Hadn't the gaming commission provided the food bank with money previously?

"Yes, but that's before we set down this new ruling," Rohrer said.

A new set of guidelines available from the gaming commission specifies a number of attachments, including the Internal Revenue Service determination that the group is a certified non-profit, a list of the organization's board of directors and the group's latest financial statement.

"They didn't provide a budget, their annual and most recent financial statements and documentation of how past funds had been used. And there was no determination letter (of non-profit status) either from the IRS," according to Kathy Sterling, director of the gaming commission.

Sterling agreed that the application guidelines are more detailed than they've been in the past, but not so difficult that agencies can't comply. She said she and members of the commission would be glad to walk Stouffer through the process the next time around.

Commission chairman Rohrer said he regretted what had happened, but said that "we can't bend the rules for one, or we'd have to do it for everyone."

He held out the possibility that a representative of the food bank might be able to come to the commission's hearings, tentatively set for July 22 and 24, from 1 to 4:30 p.m. in the county commissioners' meeting room, and explain why the application was incomplete.

"I would say it's not too late" for the food bank to make its case, Rohrer said, "but that's up to the other commissioners."

That would certainly be welcome news to the clients of the food bank, who are coming through at the rate of about 1,000 a month. Stouffer explained that after being certified as needy by one of several local agencies, families can receive an allotment of food that is supposed to last from three to five days. Eligible families are limited to five food bank trips each year, so in between those visits, they just have to stretch their dollars or find other resources.

"A lot of people who come to us do work. They just pay high rents," Stouffer said.

In addition, the food bank runs a "brown bag" program in which groups of 12 families pay $10 per family each month and receive up to 70 pounds of food per month.

Everything that comes in goes out to the families they serve, Stouffer said.

"We have no paid help, we have no secretaries, but we do have about 70 volunteers," she said.

And what about someone who could put together an application?

"The fellow from the bank who keeps our accounts could do it, I guess," Stouffer said, "but he's got so much on him already."

Okay, let's see if we can sort this out:

- Faced with a more complicated procedure for applying for funds, the food bank opts not to complete the application, counting, perhaps, on the fact that its good works are well-known.

- Faced with an agency that appears to be defying the guidelines, the commission reacts in the only way that it can, by denying the application.

It is an unfortunate turn of events, because we're not talking about the South Mountain Poodle Club here, but an agency that helps families who've been certified as needy. And that help only comes five weeks a year, so nobody's getting fat on food bank charity.

I've met and interviewed some of their clients, and they're just like you and me, except that they got laid off, or sick or listened to all the numbskulls who told them they didn't need college or advanced training to get and keep a good job.

If you can find it in your heart to help people like these, either by volunteering to help fill out the next application or by sending along a check, write to: St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Food Bank Account, 601 Washington Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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