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Published March 28, 2012, 11:30 PM

Running on empty: Area nonprofits struggle amid high gas prices

FARGO - Ever since Maureen Kasowski retired from her nursing career three years ago, she has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer.

FARGO - Ever since Maureen Kasowski retired from her nursing career three years ago, she has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer.

“It’s not just delivering meals,” says the Fargo woman. “When you get to the client’s house, you bring not only a meal but a smile and a kind word. It’s kind of a safety check as well.”

But volunteers also are expected to provide their own cars and gas. So escalating fuel costs could deter some from volunteering at a time when several nonprofits in the area, especially those with ample transportation demands, already are strained by costlier gas.

Kasowski’s Meals on Wheels route typically stretches from University Drive to 25th Street. She says it requires a fair amount of driving to pick up the meals, deliver them to nine to 12 households and drop off the containers.

Still, Kasowski insists gas prices won’t stop her. “You do develop a relationship with these people,” she says. “It’s too meaningful for me to even worry about the cost of gas.”

And there lies the silver lining. Although analysts predict gas prices could climb to anywhere from $3.75 to $4.15 a gallon in May, nonprofit staffers seem determined to meet their core mission anyway – even if that means trimming expenses elsewhere.

Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo has been especially hard hit by the fuel spike.

Program director Steven Sellent says its fuel costs have run $13,000 to $14,000 higher in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, than they were at this time last year.

The food bank owns six trucks, including two semitrailers, which cover every corner of the state.

“We budgeted for an increase, but certainly not to the extent we’ve seen diesel fuel increase,” Sellent says.

Demand for the food bank also is up. Sellent says food shelf visits are up 6 percent this year, partly because of an increase in flood victims.

The good news, Sellent says, is that North Dakotans are generous. “Contributions also are up this fiscal year, so we’re going to be fine,” he says.

He is more concerned for rural residents who need to drive 20 miles or more to pick up a food basket at one of the bank’s 290 mobile sites statewide.

“It’s kind of a double hit on rural families,” Sellent says. “At some point, they won’t be able to afford gas to drive to a food shelf, so they’re going to struggle with hunger even more than they already do.”

The Fargo-based Head Start program also has been affected by fuel hikes.

Barry Nelson, project director of Head Start and Early Head Start programs, says the early childhood-development program serves 309 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income households in Fargo, Wahpeton and the southeast corner of the state. It provides busing for 65 percent of those children.

He estimates the agency has spent 13 percent more on fuel costs this year than it did at this time last year.

Head Start administrators will likely have to reduce expenditures in areas like supplies to offset gasoline increases, he says.

In anticipation of summertime fuel hikes, administrators of the city-run Metro Senior Ride Service bumped up its fee for a one-way ride from $2.50 to $3 in January. City paratransit service also boosted its fees to $3, says Paul Grindeland, director of transportation services.

Despite the increase, Grindeland says he didn’t receive a single complaint from a senior citizen.

“I think they just know this is a good-quality service that is beneficial to them, and they realize costs are going up, especially with fuel,” he says.

Grindeland estimates the city-run transportation service’s fuel costs were 8 percent higher in February compared to that same month in 2011.

But he doesn’t anticipate another rate increase anytime soon.

“We probably wouldn’t do that unless it got really drastic, like $5 or $6 a gallon,” he says. “It can’t be done that easily. We’d look for cost-cutting measures in other places first.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525