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`Keep the change' helps grocery stores feed the hungry

Safeway Stores wants its customers to get used to saying, ``Keep the change.'' Those three words, it hopes, could make a big difference to the hungry.

In launching Project Change for the Hungry, Safeway joins a small but growing band of retail food stores that are taking on hunger and malnutrition, and getting their customers to help. Through print and radio advertising and buttons worn by cashiers, these stores are encouraging shoppers to leave their spare nickels and dimes behind.

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The money collected will be donated to the local Salvation Army in the form of coupons, which resemble ordinary manufacturers' coupons, but which people in need can redeem for fresh food, like milk, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and even meat.

``It will help round off the diets of people who don't necessarily get fresh items through food stamps,'' says Lt. Col. Gordon Swyers, divisional commander at the Salvation Army.

Although retail grocers have donated nonperishables to food banks for several years, fresh food for the poor has been limited and often unavailable.

``It is also a very dignified way for people to get the fresh food they need,'' says Alice Skirtz, director of social service with the Salvation Army in Cincinnati.

Coupon programs also allow local charities to reach rural areas more effectively. The food doesn't have to be stored: It's on the grocer's shelf, and people can go directly to their supermarket, instead of driving long distances to the nearest food bank, says a spokesman for the Kroger Company.

Safeway spent $150,000 to get the program started in its Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., stores. It followed a four-month pilot program in Cincinnati, started by Kroger and that city's Salvation Army. There is interest in similar programs by stores in New England and the Midwest, Ms. Skirtz says.

``The public/private partnership is a far better way to solve the problem of hunger,'' says Rep. Frederick Upton (R) of Michigan, a member of the House Select Committee on Hunger.

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``If we could get enough of these partnerships going, we could have a major impact,'' adds Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, another committee member.

Indeed, Safeway's program had already collected $1,000 from 15 of its stores only five days after it was launched. And Kroger's Roundup for the Hungry has fed 26,000 people since it started in March, Skirtz says.

Robert Bradford, Safeway's senior vice-president, says private initiative is needed ``at a time when government is doing less.''

Although the number of people living below the poverty level is increasing, the number of those helped by federal food programs is decreasing, according to the group DC Hunger Action. In 1985, the United States Census Bureau reported that 33.7 million people had fallen below the poverty line, which was an income of $11,000 for a family of four.

Between 1982 and 1985, according to DC Hunger Action, the number of people receiving food stamps decreased by 20 percent, even though more people needed assistance.

``Benefits are inherently out of touch with reality - three to six months out of date,'' says Robert Fersch, executive director at the Federal Research and Action Center. Food stamp benefits are adjusted once a year and put into effect in October, he explains.

Food prices are expected to rise 3 to 5 percent over the next year because of the drought, according to a projection by the House Agriculture Committee. But ``there will be no compensation for the poor until a year from now, since food stamp adjustments reflect food prices for the previous year,'' Mr. Fersch says.

Legislation pending in both the House and Senate - having just passed each chamber's Agriculture Committee - would reduce this difference to some degree by phasing in increases of 2 to 3 percent.

Meanwhile, the private/public initiatives are catching on. First National Supermarkets in New England and Dillon Companies Inc. in the Midwest are forming similar programs.

``We even had a call from a group in Ontario,'' Skirtz says.

``It's a success already,'' Mr. Swyers at the Salvation Army says, ``because we've been able to get the first $25,000 worth of coupons out.''

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