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Firms try to remain generous to needy

CINCINNATI — She sat patiently in her wheelchair, as scurrying volunteers gathered ham, a turkey, canned goods, bread, and bags of potatoes, apples and pungent onions in a storeroom with sporadic drafts of frigid air from outside.

But Patricia Jordan had a warm feeling as she considered the bounty that would help feed her cash-strapped household of 14, including her disabled veteran husband, their children and her sister's family. She, like others who flocked to the Freestore Foodbank this week, were concerned about companies reducing donations this year because of the economy.

"I think a lot of us were worried about everybody cutting back, but so far it's panning out," Jordan said. "You can't ask for any more than that, that they're still willing to help."

The food bank opened 90 minutes early Monday, at 6:30 a.m., after workers found 200 people lined up in near-zero cold, some since 4 a.m.

Across the nation, the needs are growing as the deepening recession leads to more families struggling each day just to put food on the table. Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, says some 25 million people are going to such food banks, and the number is rising. And at the same time, many usual donors are facing their own budget problems.

FreestoreFoodbank expects to serve 16,000 households in Cincinnati this holiday season, and it says demand has jumped 55 percent in the past two years as jobless numbers rise and household budgets get stretched. But companies such as grocers SuperValu Inc. and Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.; food maker Kraft Foods Inc.; and bakery-restaurant chain Panera Bread Co., among others, have helped keep filling bags.

"They get it," said John Young, the food bank's chief executive. "They understand that we're serving many more people this year. It's touching their customers, their communities."

Not all businesses are reacting in the same way, though. The New York-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy found that about a third of companies surveyed cut 2007 charitable giving in the slowing economy, and there are indications of more reductions this year. Sectors that showed declining giving in 2007 were financial, health care and utilities.

"It's a conflict, no question. How do you keep giving when you have laid off employees and are making other cost cuts?" said Charles Moore, the committee's executive director. But he stresses to corporate leaders the customer loyalty and connection to community they can build through giving — benefiting business in the long run.

"You can be sure the community won't forget that the company stepped up," Moore said. "There is business to be gained at all levels by companies digging deeper in difficult times."

Companies have been hit by slower sales, volatile energy prices and higher raw materials costs, and some charitable organizations acknowledge that business leaders are under pressure to make profits, not give away money. Some ailing companies such as Ford Motor Co., which donates refrigerated vehicles to help get food donations to rural areas, have continued charitable programs, but at reduced totals.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the retail giant that has seen sales continue to grow in a discount-minded economy, is giving more cash and food this year.

"We've made an extra effort to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our community partners and our customers who maybe need some extra help," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Deisha Galberth said. She said the company, which donated nearly $300 million to charity last year, will top that this year. Last week Wal-Mart gave $400,000 in hard-hit Ohio alone, to help feed families and pay utility bills this winter.

Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, said companies have been creative in keeping up donations such as by diverting holiday gifts, and year-end bonuses, to charities. Kroger encourages customers to "round up" their bills at checkout to donate, and grocers are coming up with more in gleaning efforts, in which food that would be pulled off retail shelves at sell-by dates or for other reasons is donated because it's still good to eat.

Companies are encouraging more employee volunteer efforts and also are enlisting celebrities. Members of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings manned Salvation Army kettles outside Kroger stores in Michigan. Cincinnati-based consumer products maker Procter & Gamble Co. has Tom Colicchio of Bravo TV's Top Chef in a meal-donation program for its Cascade dishwashing brand. And Olympic gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson helped an effort to hand out more than 1.4 million tubes of Crest toothpaste to the needy.

Besides food, charities say there is a big need for household items. P&G has a barrage of efforts involving its products, including Duracell battery donations and an animal adoption program featuring Iams pet food at a time of rising abandonment of pets. P&G also plans to provide millions of meals for children by tying consumer use of its coupons — coupon-clipping has made a comeback during the recession — to company donations.

While cutting costs in other areas, P&G says it is keeping up charitable giving of well over $100 million a year.

"We are committed in good times and in bad," said Brian Sasson, global manager for P&G philanthropy. "We're proud to be helping families get what they need in these tough times."