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FITCHBURG — Relief providers across the region have seen a steady increase in demand for grocery and heat assistance programs over the past year and the United Way of North Central Massachusetts is stepping up its efforts to support those organizations.

In a break from its standard practice of providing annual grants to its member organizations, the Fitchburg-based non-profit recently donated over $60,000 to provide emergency relief for food and heat programs that have seen demand jump up to 40 percent over the past year.

It’s being called the “Safety Net” initiative, and North Central Massachusetts United Way President Phil Grzewinski said the plan is to continue working closely with partner groups through the winter — and put the word out about how many people are being impacted by the slow economy and persistently high unemployment rates.

“There is a great demand for our support services throughout the region,” he said. “We’re trying to let people know that we’re putting resources right now to help people in need, because the need is so much more than we anticipated.”

“We’re hoping this will resonate with the residents of our communities … so we can continue the work we’re doing,” he added, at another point.

Founded in 1979, the United Way of North Central Massachusetts is an independent non-profit organization with a service area of 19 communities and a list of partner organizations that includes Loaves and Fishes at Devens and the Townsend Ecumenical Food Pantry.

Grzewinski traced the evolution of the Safety Net program to roughly a year ago, when United Way chapters across the Commonwealth participated in a competitive fundraising effort, which was held out of concern for the declining economy. That effort raised about $110,000 for area relief efforts in and Grzewinski estimated that it allowed them to help an additional 2,200 families during the past year — over and above their annual average of about 7,000.

However, Grzewinski said the statewide fundraiser was a one-year event and the United Way went into this year planning to set-aside funds from its traditional fundraisers to support its member organizations.

The exact extent of that need was determined during a recent survey of partner organizations, which reported the increases of 15 to 40 percent, along with notes indicating that wider swatches of the community were seeking help and that some providers were having difficulty meeting that challenge.

Further, the New England Farm Workers’ Council — a NPO that administers heating assistance across North Central Massachusetts — reported a record number of applicants, up 26 percent from last year. Another agency reported that families are increasingly doubling-up in apartments, an indicator they’re likely close to being homeless.

It was in response to those numbers that the United Way donated the $60,714, $20,000 of which was used to purchase food cards for agencies, $15,000 for Worcester Food Bank and the remaining $25,714 for discretionary fuel assistance to “targeted” agencies and the farmer’s council.

Grzewinski added that the United Way will also start a monthly monitoring program with its partners this winter to “stay on top” of any future shortfall that may arise, though he declined to speculate about what future donations may be required .

However, Grzewinski did say that grassroots support is vital to the United Way’s mission, urging residents to get involved, either by volunteering at a partner organization or making a donation to the United Way’s annual fundraising campaign, which kicked-off in September.

Those seeking help from the United Way can dial MASS-211 (627-7211) to get referrals on housing, shelter, food, emergency assistance, counseling and other services.

There are also a number of ways to support the United Way, which are listed on the organization’s Web site,

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