Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hunters for the Hungry (Tennessee Wildlife Federation)

“Local Hunters Harvesting Local Deer to Feed Local People.”
That’s a motto of Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s program called Hunters for the Hungry.

Basically, Hunters for the Hungry provides a means for hunters to safely donate venison to charitable organizations that feed food insecure Americans.

According to National Rifle Association figures, there are Hunters for the Hungry, or similar organizations, in at least 44 states, with a total national yield for the 2009-2010 season of 2,603,263 pounds of Deer, Elk, Antelope, Moose, Pheasants and Waterfowl meat.

Matt Simcox and Chad Whittenburg

For an inside look at how a Hunters for the Hungry organization operates and what makes it successful, we visited the Tennessee Wildlife Federation offices in Nashville, TN. We met Director of Outreach Chad Whittenburg and Outreach Coordinator Matt Simcox.

Hunters for the Hungry was started in 1995 as a program of the state Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.  In 1998, it moved to the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, which is a state-wide nonprofit conservation organization. Chad coordinated the program from 2005 to 2008, when Matt was hired to coordinate it. Under their leadership, Hunters for the Hungry has grown steadily. In the 2009-2010 season, Tennessee hunters donated over 100,000 pounds of venison, enough for over 400,000 servings! 

How does it work? Local chapters of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and generous deer processors are key.
  • Hunters for the Hungry recruits certified deer processors to participate in the program. Each processor agrees to process a donated deer for $40 (much less than the usual rate). This year, 71 processors signed up, one or more in 55 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
  • Hunters abide by all state regulations, property permits, season dates, and bag limits.
  • Local chapters of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation raise funds for Hunters for the Hungry. Those funds are used by their local processor to pay the processing fees for deer donated to Hunters for the Hungry. Once those funds run out, hunters may still donate a deer, but pay the $40 themselves.
  • Hunters may also donate a portion of the meat from a deer they’re having processed for their own use. This method accounts for about 1/3 of the venison donated to Hunters for the Hungry.
  • Each processor has a freezer dedicated to Hunters for the Hungry. Once the freezer is full, or when the locally-designated soup kitchen or pantry needs meat, a volunteer comes and transfers the frozen venison to the kitchen or pantry where it will be used to feed hungry people.
We visited Flowers’ Deer Processing, one of the first to join Hunters for the Hungry. We spoke with Jim Flowers, shown here with a chub of ground venison, the preferred packaging because it’s the easiest and most versatile for cooks to prepare.

Enough funds have been raised in this county to cover the processing of 119 deer. As this board shows, even though the hunting season was only open to bow hunters so far, 13 deer had already been donated. Flowers contributes even more to Hunters for the Hungry because they request that everyone who has a deer processed here donate at least one chub to the program.

We think that Hunters for the Hungry is a good program on many levels.

First, everyone has a role to play in alleviating hunger. This program encourages hunters, deer processors, and local wildlife federation members to directly help hunger relief organizations in their communities. Meat is expensive, and without venison, these pantries and feeding programs would need to find other ways to purchase it for their clients.

Second, harvesting deer beyond what individual hunters need to feed their own families helps to manage the burgeoning deer population.  There is general agreement among conservationists, foresters, and wildlife management professionals that in the United States, deer herds have become dangerously large, damaging our forests and negatively impacting cultivated areas and crops because there are more deer than the land can healthily sustain.

Deer also are increasingly causing damage to vehicles and themselves on roads. According to State Farm Insurance, car collisions with deer have increased 21% in the last 5 years.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, hungry folks receive high-quality, lean meat, better than can be purchased in a store. Wild venison is delicious and nutritious.  It is natural, free of artificial hormones, and lower in fat and calories than beef and pork.  Nothing second-rate here! Hunters for the Hungry provides meat for food-insecure people that is higher quality than what most Americans eat.

Hunters for the Hungry is a win-win-win program.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Red Bird Farmers Project – Improving Nutrition and Food Security

Nutritious food is often difficult to obtain by poor residents of remote communities in Appalachia. In Bell, Clay, and Leslie counties, KY, the result is high reliance on government assistance, as well as very high prevalence (top quartile nationally) of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

To help people of this area improve their nutrition and their ability to meet their own food needs, Red Bird Mission hosts the Red Bird Farmers Project.  This project includes a farmer's market, jointly owned farm and food preparation equipment, and training classes.  It also includes two major grants helping expand local food production. 

The first is Heifer International.  Red Bird Mission received a grant from Heifer to increase local livestock production.  A group of about 25 farmers attended the required training to obtain animals. The training included such topics as space and fencing requirements for each type of animal, amending the fields to make them safe and healthy for the animals, caring for the animals, and budgeting to make sure you’ll make money raising the animals.  Some of the farmers have even attended regional and national training. There they’ve networked with experienced farmers who are eager to answer questions for newer farmers.

The group decided to concentrate on chickens, goats, and cows. At the beginning, almost everyone wanted cows.  But as the participants learned that not all land in the area can sustain cows without having to buy large amounts of supplemental feed, they came to realize that goats or chickens might be more appropriate.

Through Heifer, money was available for farm improvements like chicken houses and fencing, as well as to buy the animals. When one of the members of the group thought they were ready to purchase animals, more experienced people from the group inspected the farm to make sure the requirements for their desired animals were met. Only then could they get the money to buy their animals.

A Heifer project participant’s commitment doesn’t end when the animals arrive. Each farmer’s contract specifies that they must “pass on” equivalent animals to someone else in the group as soon as their animals have reproduced and they have them to provide.

Farming is a family business

The 3 ½ year Heifer grant is expiring at the end of this year, but the Farmer’s Project will continue the program. What won’t be provided, though, are funds to get the farms ready to house the animals. Now farmers will need to come up with this funding themselves.

We visited Rodney (pictured here with his father), who had obtained goats for his farm through the Heifer International grant. He also received funding for a hen house that he’d designed himself, and says works just the way he wanted it to. Rodney was definitely an animal lover, and his animals appeared to be healthy and well fed. He said his female goats were all pregnant.

Rodney has become quite an entrepreneur, not only raising goats and chickens, but also growing seedlings in the spring for local gardeners and running a feed and veterinary supply store for other local farmers so they all don’t have to drive the long distance to town. He raises hay for his animals, and sells about 4 dozen eggs per day from his chickens.

Stacia Carwell with
gardener Dwayne
The second major grant in the Farmers Program is Grow Appalachia, a program that encourages local production of vegetables. Grow Appalachia is funded by John Paul DeJoria, CEO and founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, Inc. In partnership with Berea College, Grow Appalachia was managed at Red Bird Mission by Garden Project Coordinator Nancy Seaberg.

This was the first year of Grow Appalachia. About 29 people, families, or groups participated, many of them gardening for the first time. About 2/3 of the participants live on less than $700/mo. Others, like Dwayne (shown here with Stacia Carwell, Familiy Ministries Outreach Manager), were experienced gardeners who wanted to be a part of the program and served as resources for the less experienced members.

Grow Appalachia participants attended classes, and received locally grown seeds and plants. They received tools if they needed them, canners and jars at the preserving class, and fruit plants for a low price at the class on fruits.

All told, the participants in this first year of Grow Appalachia produced about 600 bushels of produce, and all of the participants want to continue next year!

Nancy Seaberg, gardener Sue, and rototiller Carolyn
Nancy put us to work rototilling to put one of the gardens to bed for the winter. This garden was at the senior apartments and had been divided into 5 plots. A few green pepper plants were still bearing in one corner, so we left that area untilled.
We also got a chance to talk to one of the gardeners. Sue was very happy with her garden. She had harvested lots of green beans, many of which were now in her freezer, and she had also shared a good portion of her produce. She is eager to garden next year, but wants her plot to be next to a friend’s plot. It turns out she likes hoeing, but not planting, and her friend likes planting but not hoeing.

We feel that Red Bird Farmers Project is a great example of the leverage Red Bird Mission achieves by partnering with other programs such as Grow Appalachia and Heifer International, bringing new opportunities for nutritious food and self-sufficiency to residents of the Red Bird area.

Red Bird Mission, serving the needs of Eastern Kentucky

The Red Bird area of Kentucky is deep in the Appalachian Mountains, in Bell, Clay, and Leslie counties. The rugged mountains make for beautiful scenery, but also difficult transportation, little employment, and extreme poverty. While on average, about 17% of Kentuckians live below the federal poverty level, in these 3 counties, the poverty levels are far worse: 35%, 37%, and 29%.  These 3 counties are all ranked in the top 20 poorest counties in the entire country.

How should we work to help ensure that residents here have food to eat, can meet their basic needs, and share in the opportunities afforded the rest of the country?

We can’t imagine a better solution than Red Bird Mission.

Red Bird Mission is located near the tiny post office of Beverly, KY.  Founded with just a school in 1921, today it has grown to a full-service mission of the United Methodist Church, the only one of its kind in the U.S. It serves approximately 14,000 people each year.

The large main campus includes the mission school, clinics, offices for community outreach, a large work camp with dining hall and cabins, volunteer quarters, several residences for mission directors, a volunteer fire department, storage for building materials, and maintenance facilities for the buildings and the Mission’s 50 vehicles. A second campus houses a church and senior center.

We met with Director of Community Outreach Tracy Nolan (left), Development Manager Tonya Asher, Family Ministries Outreach Manager Stacia Carwell, and Garden Project Coordinator Nancy Seaberg.

Red Bird Mission programs and services cover all the areas you might think would be important to this community:
  • Education through the Red Bird Mission School for 160 students in grades K-12.
  • Health and Wellness including medical and dental clinics, a pharmacy, home care, and health education programs.
  • Economic Opportunity through a craft store for local artisans and the Community Store, which offers high-quality used clothing.
  • On the left you see Tonya next to donated clothing in the arrival area.  Donations are then sorted, washed, and sold extremely inexpensively in the bright, clean store shown on the right.  The Community Store is often a person's first introduction to the services of Red Bird Mission.
  • Work Camp for improvements to homes in the area. Each year, about 3000 volunteers (up to 120/week) repair over 200 homes and help improve living conditions for residents of the Red Bird area.
  • Community Outreach.  We spent most of our visit learning about Community Outreach. We were particularly interested in programs helping Red Bird area residents become food secure through farming and gardening. We’ll describe those programs in the next blog posting.
But the full list of social services and community development programs is vast -- way too long to describe in detail here. The small staff (5 full-time, 8 part-time or occasional, and numerous volunteers) handle
Two volunteers filling Christmas boxes
with all new, donated  toys, books,
clothing, linens, and personal care items
for about 500 children who otherwise
would have little or nothing at Christmas.

  • Community aid (e.g., food pantry and government commodities)
  • Services for seniors (e.g., transportation, senior center, and senior housing)
  • Services for pregnant women and children (e.g., home visits, preschool, and summer youth programs)
  • Services for families (e.g., adult education, transitional housing, and Christmas boxes).
Community Outreach staff work one-on-one with people who come to Red Bird Mission. They form close relationships. As a person is ready, they build a set of services to meet their individual needs, and encourage them to move away from crisis and hunger insecurity to self-sufficiency.

One thing that enables outreach services to reach more people is that many of the programs are not unique or invented by Red Bird Mission. Rather, Community Outreach seems masterful in partnering with helpful existing programs, tailoring them to meet local needs, and making them available at the mission through grants, providing the space, or just setting up the meetings. The Mission is the catalyst. Examples of programs in this category include USDA Commodities, GED adult education, Heifer International, and Family-to-Family.

Overall, our experiences at Red Bird Mission left us awed and inspired by the important work and Christian service we saw everywhere.

Mission staff members hold deep respect for the local culture. Many grew up here, graduated from Red Bird Mission School, and are currently raising families here. We heard over and over about strengths such as these: People here are very family oriented; they own their land; relatives and several generations are likely to reside near each other. People here take care of their own; even though there’s a very high homeless rate, you don’t see it because multiple generations and multiple families may live in one house. People here are very proud and resilient; they have a history of hunting, gardening, and canning, so they can survive tough circumstances.

Red Bird Mission also inspires dedicated volunteers. We met several folks who were living in the volunteer quarters with us or who were participating in the work camp while we were there. Person after person told us they had been coming for a week or more every year for 10 or 20 years or more. We met a volunteer who was currently serving as an aide at Red Bird Mission School for the entire year. We met another family who came for a year and are still there 38 years later.

Who knows, maybe we’ll meet you there one day, too.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Canstruction Asheville

What happens when creative architects and school kids run a food drive? Canstruction!

On our way from SC to KY, we stopped at Pack Place in Asheville, NC, where the Canstruction competition was just getting started.

Thad Rhoden of Architectural Design Studio and this year’s Chairman explained the whole process to us, and we watched as seven teams of enthusiastic kids built fantastic creations from cans.

Canstruction is a national nonprofit organization sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  Each year, it holds competitions in which teams construct huge sculptures entirely out of cans. At the end of the event, all the cans are donated to local food banks to help feed hungry people in the community.
This entry was called "May Hunger Rest in Peas"

Canstruction Asheville, sponsored by the Asheville chapter of AIA, is different than many Canstruction events because the contestant are all teams of middle and high school students. Each team comes up with its own idea and implements it with the assistance of a teacher and 1 or more architects.

Canstruction projects take the students through the full building cycle:
  • Design: Entries must fit within an 8-foot cube, must be made of cans, must not deface the can in any way because it will be distributed to hungry families after the event.
  • Budget: This year, each team could order $1400 worth of cans as the materials for their project. Funds were raised by Canstruction from local corporate donors.
  • Schedule: Each team met a minimum of 6 times to plan their project and meet the Canstruction milestones. 
  • Construction: Cans were delivered to Pack Place and all construction took place on October 30 before 5pm.
The team for this caramel apple urged people to “spread a
little sweetness by donating food to Manna Food Bank.”
Entries will be judged during the week and the winners announced next Saturday, November 6. Prizes will be awarded for:

  • Best meal (most balanced diet)
  • Structural ingenuity
  • Best use of labels
  • Juror’s favorite
  • This team said, "The wheels of the tractor are changing
    direction, and in a similar way, we hope to turn the corner
    on hunger in Buncombe County while HARVESTING HOPE
    for all."
  • People’s choice (During the week, members of the public come and view the entries. They can vote for their favorite by leaving a can in the big bin next to it.)

This entry proclaimed:  "Hunger has been
around for too long. ... It is time the hour
glass runs out."

These kids clearly learned a lot! We don’t know what the winning entries will be, but we do know that the “final” winners will be the hungry of western North Carolina. That’s because after next Saturday, all of the approximately 14,000 cans used in this Canstruction event, plus all the cans donated by folks to vote on each entry, will go to the local Manna FoodBank.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Meals on Wheels of Greenville County, SC

According to a study conducted in 2009 by the Meals On Wheels Association of America, South Carolina is the state with the second highest risk of senior hunger in America.
Therefore, for our visit to South Carolina we decided to visit a program specifically targeting seniors. We chose Meals on Wheels of Greenville, which serves all of Greenville County, the most populous county in the state.
We met with Director of Volunteer Services Kerri Brison and Executive Director Liz Seman (pictured here), who included us in their busy day and gave us a full picture of how this great organization functions.

Meals on Wheels of Greenville:
  • Began in 1968.
  • Is entirely supported by community donations from private individuals and corporations. They take no money from the government or United Way, freeing them to set their own rules.
  • Serves about 1500 meals a day (M-F) to homebound clients who are referred by a physician or social service agency. Unlike many similar programs, here there are no charges for the meals and no financial qualifications to receive them. They “serve without judging.”
  • Runs with about 13 full-time and 17 part-time staff members, and about 2000 volunteers. The largest groups of volunteers are retirees, stay-at-home moms, and corporate volunteers. Corporate monetary donations have declined with the poor economy, but we were told that many area companies still commit to staffing certain routes; this allows employees to volunteer less frequently but relieves Meals on Wheels from the burden of scheduling the volunteers individually. Many volunteer work the line or drive the same route on the same day each week.
  • Sees their role as providing daily human contact for their clients, some of whom see nobody else all day. The volunteer who delivers the meal also chats with the client and if something seems amiss reports that to staff, who try to help by doing things like arranging for other services the client might need.
On our day at Meals on Wheels of Greenville, we worked on the line to pack all 1500 meals and we helped to deliver meals on two different routes.
How did it all work?
Packing meals was like being a cog in a well-oiled machine. Twelve volunteers worked on the line, six on each side:  The first person scooped rice into the largest compartment of a divided aluminum tray and slid it along to the next, who added a piece of chicken breast. The 3rd and 4th people added broccoli and diced pears. The 5th and 6th put the lid on the dinner tray and clamped it shut. Kitchen staff kept the line supplied with food and moved the finished trays to heating cabinets to return them to proper temperatures.
It only took an hour and a half for our crew to pack all of the day’s 1500 meals! About 1350 of the meals were for today’s clients and 150 were frozen for clients who need extra meals for the evening or weekend, when Meals on Wheels doesn’t deliver.

Then it was time to deliver the meals.  Meals on Wheels of Greenville maintains 112 delivery routes, each with an average of about 11 stops – whatever number keeps the total time to do the route under 1.5 hours so the food will arrive hot.

We were awed by the complexity of the process that must be required to maintain these routes and the deliveries on them:
  • New clients are added or existing clients removed.
  • Clients may not need a meal on a particular day.
  • Clients may need special meals – Meals on Wheels supplies standard meals (all of which are appropriate for diabetics), renal meals (for clients who need low sodium and low potassium), precut meals (for clients with difficulty cutting, such as those with arthritis), and pureed meals (for clients with dental problems, for example). In addition, clients can choose milk or juice.
  • Volunteer drivers become fiercely attached to the routes they drive, and the clients they get to know on those routes, so they don’t like their routes to be changed.
The first meals off the line were transferred to 4 trucks that take meals to drop-off sites (church parking lots) for about 20 routes that serve areas of the county far away from Greenville.

Volunteer drivers for the nearby routes arrived about 10:45 and picked up the updated list for their route. Each list showed which clients needed a meal that day, which type of meal, and which beverage. The route list also had directions on how to get to each client’s residence and information about the client such as how long it might take them to get to the door.
The drivers packed the cold drinks they’d need in their “cold” insulated container. They then went to the kitchen window where staff loaded their “hot” containers with meals of the proper type from the heating ovens. If they were also delivering a frozen meal, these were added to the “cold” container.

Sometimes, drivers bring other items to clients as well:
  • Donated bread
  • Peaches or other fruit
  • Cat or dog food (twice a month to clients with pets)
  • A card and special treat such as a small cake or sugar-free pie (diet appropriate) for clients celebrating a birthday
Finally, the drivers loaded the containers into their cars and headed out to deliver the meals and chat with the clients. Here are two pictures of the volunteers with whom we rode bringing Meals on Wheels to two grateful clients.
The Meals On Wheels Association of America is a loose association of non-profit organizations that share the goal of ending hunger among seniors in America. Member organizations vary widely in how they operate, but we can only hope that all are as effective in serving the needs of their clients as Meals on Wheels of Greenville.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Area Congregations in Ministry, Oxford, NC

Friday, we visited ACIM (Area Congregations in Ministry), in Oxford, NC, which provides emergency assistance to people in need who live in Granville county. In addition to a food pantry that serves approximately 50 families per week, ACIM provides help with medical and utility bills, temporary shelter, and referrals to other services.

ACIM is supported by financial and food donations from local churches, businesses, other organizations, and individuals. It also gets funds from the government and United Way. In 2009, it helped 1516 families (3177 people) with food, and dispersed more than $98,000 to help people pay their bills.

ACIM is housed in a building that used to be a hosiery factory. They just moved to this location last spring from very cramped quarters downtown. After extensive cleaning and remodeling, they now have an entryway decorated with relics from the hosiery factory, a client intake and waiting area, a director’s office, and cubicles for privacy while interviewing the clients. On one side is the food pantry -- a large room with shelving, freezers, refrigerators, and food.

ACIM is open 3 mornings a week. When clients arrive, they sign in. If they’ve been there before, their file is obtained. If they haven’t, a file is created. Then they’re interviewed to determine what help they need.

Most of the requests for help can be handled by the volunteers who initially talk to the clients, but the requests for help paying bills seem to be handled by the able and experienced, Sue Hinman, pictured here on the left. Sue is the only paid ACIM employee, where she’s been the director for 10 years. We sat in as she handled 3 requests.
  • An elderly man who supports himself and his wife on $600/mo + $16 in food stamps came with a final notice electric bill for about $285 that needed to be paid by next Tuesday or else his power would be shut off. ACIM rules allow Sue to pay up to $200 once a year, but the man did not have the remaining $85. Sue asked the man to return Monday after she'd had a chance to search for additional funds at other agencies.
  • The second person, a woman, had asked for help before, and was turned down this time because she didn’t have the correct bill.
  • The third was a young man who had been helped before, several years earlier. He had a termination bill for his electricity. Sue gave him a voucher to help with most of this bill, but told him he must take the budgeting class before he could be helped again.
We liked the idea of the budgeting class. ACIM pays for the course through donations. Sue said it is taught by the extension service a few times a year. Each class has 4 evening sessions held in the ACIM building. It covers topics such as needs vs. wants, saving to pay upcoming bills, and budgeting. Apparently, when people first go, they feel like they have to be there and display a look of unreceptive defiance. But as the course continues, it makes sense and students learn something. Only 2 people have said they didn’t learn anything from it, and one of those has asked to come back and take it again.

After this, we helped in the food pantry. Clients can only obtain food assistance once each 3 months. The process is like this:
  • If a client needs food, an interviewer fills out a slip of paper with the number of people in the family, whether they are children, adults, or seniors, and whether they are to receive ACIM food, federal TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program, available to anyone who is receiving SNAP benefits), or both. In most cases, clients receive both.
  • Pantry workers fill boxes with food for the family, without knowing who is getting the food. Clients receive one of each item per family member; they have no choice on what foods they will be given. We noticed a few foods that were in larger packages (macaroni and rice, for example), and these packages were only given to large families.
  • After the boxes for a client are filled, one of the pantry workers helps the client load the food into their car.
Most of the food available at the pantry was shelf-stable items like canned or packaged goods. There were some fresh breads and sweets from local grocery stores. Meat from the local grocery stores (about to expire) had been frozen in their packages at the store, and was kept and distributed frozen at the food pantry.

There were no fresh fruits or vegetables when we were there, and we were told that little fresh produce was available. When ACIM does get produce, it’s usually quite old and needs to be sorted and used quickly. This isn’t practical for the ACIM pantry, so they usually give it to the local soup kitchen or set it outside for anyone to take.

The ACIM pantry has a different feel than some other pantries we’ve visited. The focus of the agency is clearly on helping people handle emergency needs and avoid financial emergencies in the future. It is not meant to help people with ongoing needs – for that, clients are referred to other federal or state assistance programs.

We were impressed by ACIM’s centralization of services. Because all the churches have gone together to support this one organization, individual churches don’t need to handle separate requests for aid, people in need have a single place to go for assistance, and the same rules apply to everyone.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Does our society tolerate hunger? Interview with Dr. Maureen Berner

Do you know how many food pantries provide free groceries to hungry people in your area? We asked a few people how many they would guess served the 34 counties of Central and Eastern North Carolina (about 1/3 of the state). We got answers of 10, 25, 100, and 102. What do you think?

The real number is close to 500 food pantries. Nationally, according to Feeding America, the number is 33,500 pantries.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to not need food assistance are often quite unaware of this large network of food banks and pantries working every day to help feed the over 49 million Americans who live in food insecure households (data from 2008).

How is the network of food pantries doing, and who are the clients?

For a better understanding, we interviewed Dr. Maureen Berner, Associate Professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.  Dr. Berner and co-researchers, including Dr. Sharon Paynter, Assistant Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University, have studied those very questions.

We learned that most food pantries and feeding programs in this country were founded in the 1980’s, when welfare reform and other social trends led to more and more hungry Americans.  Today, demand is continuing to rise. According to Berner, at one food bank in North Carolina, demand increased 76% in 2009; at others the increase was 30% to 70%. But supply only increased 20%.

Food pantries are most often affiliated with churches and staffed by incredibly dedicated, hard working, and caring volunteers. But Dr. Berner’s research points to several factors suggesting that pantries may not be well-positioned to meet the growing need. For example:  
  • Most pantries have at most 1 paid or professional staff; 68% are run entirely by volunteers.
  • The boards of directors and volunteers (often older retirees) may not have the skills, training, or time to grow the pantry to meet increasing demand.
  • Donations of food and dollars tend to be unstable and recently have declined.
  • Pantries often occupy very small locations with little room to grow.
  • Pantries typically focus on shelf-stable foods, such as canned goods and packaged cereal. Most have limited facilities to handle fresh produce, bakery items, frozen foods, eggs, meat, milk products, and prepared foods – items that would help clients create a healthier, balanced diet.
  • Pantries sometimes offer other services, such as free clothes and referrals, but they may not see their mission as helping people reduce their food insecurity long-term with services such as job and housing assistance.
Who are the clients at food pantries?  Not perhaps entirely those you’d expect. Many are employed and many receive some form of federal food assistance.  In one study at a large food pantry in Iowa in 2004-2006, Berner reported that 26% of the clients were employed, and 39% of those coming to the pantry regularly also received aid from government programs such as food stamps and social security. Nationwide in 2009, Feeding America reported that 36% percent of the households served by their network had at least one person working, and 41% percent were receiving SNAP benefits, an increase of 64 percent over 2006.

Wouldn’t employment and federal benefits keep their recipients food secure?  Clearly not.

A person working full-time at a minimum wage job ($7.25/hour) grosses about $15,000 a year, below the poverty line for all but households of 1 or 2.
The federal poverty level is way too low for most Americans to meet their basic needs for housing, utilities, food, and other expenses. The government recognizes this, too, so for programs like WIC and School Lunch, clients may qualify if their income is below 185% of the federal poverty level. Other programs use levels such as 175% or 200% of the federal poverty line.

We’ve also heard many stories of the punishing effect of getting a job – other benefits, such as SNAP, are reduced so much that the person’s situation actually becomes worse.

Pantries are doing what they can to meet the need for food for hungry Americans. But there is an interesting disconnect. Many pantries are set up to provide short-term help for people experiencing temporary emergencies. But Berner’s research shows that most clients at food pantries have a years-long relationship with the pantry as part of meeting their ongoing, systemic need for food.

As Berner writes, “If we wish to maintain the government responsibility to alleviate hunger in our country, benefits for eligible citizens must be increased or food assistance nonprofits need more government support. Otherwise we should face the fact that as an undeclared public policy, our society tolerates hunger.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gleaning with the Society of St. Andrew

Everyone knows that a healthy diet includes ample fresh fruit and vegetables. But providing fresh produce to feed the hungry in this country is very difficult. Why?

Much fresh produce requires harvesting right when it’s ripe, needs special storage conditions, and needs to be used within days of being harvested. Food banks, food pantries, USDA commodities programs, and feeding programs have limited ability to store and distribute fresh produce. For example, many food pantries are open only once a week, so if produce becomes available on a Tuesday they may not be able to keep it until the pantry opens again the following Monday.

But at the same time, depending on the crop, an estimated 12% to 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S. are wasted every year. Why?
  • Some produce is unsold from wholesalers, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets.
  • We Americans are fussy about what we accept at grocery stores. So produce that is oddly-shaped, oddly-colored, surface blemished, too big, or too small is routinely rejected by growers, harvesters, packing facilities, and grocers.
  • Harvesters (both human and mechanical) leave some additional percentage of the crop in a field, due to it being overlooked, dropped from trees, or simply more than the crew can handle in the time available.
  • Crop success is unpredictable, so sometimes there is an excess of certain items. Prices may drop so far that it isn’t worth the farmer’s expenses to pick it. These excess crops are routinely dumped in landfills or plowed under by growers so the field is available for use the next season.
  • Sometimes whole truck-loads of produce are rejected by the receiving grocery store for reasons such as lack of proper bar-coding or it being slightly over-ripe when it arrives.
Enter the Society of St. Andrew, a nation-wide nonprofit organization that’s working "to bridge the hunger gap between 96 billion pounds of food wasted every year in this country, and the nearly 40 million Americans who live in poverty." Volunteers glean nutritious produce that would otherwise be wasted and give it away free of charge to organizations that will use it to feed hungry Americans.

Gleaning is a very, very old practice, even mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy:  "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow." (Deuteronomy 24: 21 NRSV)

We visited the Society of St. Andrew’s headquarters in Big Island, Virginia, where we met with Executive Director Mike Waldmann (left) and Communication Director Mike Hickcox. We learned that the Society of St. Andrew was founded in 1979 by two Methodist ministers who wanted to do something about hunger and Americans’ wasteful lifestyle. (Read about their history.)

Today, the Society of St. Andrew gleans produce in 22 states and delivers to all lower 48 states and Washington DC. They operate no warehouses and no formal distribution system. Instead, they rely on regional directors, who organize gleaning events with their huge list of 878 local growers and other food sources, and volunteer gleaners, who capture and deliver the produce to local organizations that can use it while it is still fresh. In 2009, 34,624 volunteers gleaned a total of over 26,500,000 pounds of food and delivered it to 3,400 nonprofit hunger-relief organizations.

Gleaning is a great way for all sorts of groups – school groups, church groups, kids, mixed-age groups – to help end hunger in America. Little or no expertise is required – after all, we volunteered as apple gleaners! Our group consisted of 9 other adults, including Virginia Gleaning Program Director Sarah Ramey (on the right).

Mr. Gross had generously allowed us to glean in one of his Bedford, VA, orchards. When we arrived, it looked as though we would find few apples. But as we looked more closely, we found lots and lots of good apples on the ground and in a few trees that had been skipped. By the end of about 90 minutes, our group had filled 60 bags of apples, or about 720 pounds – that’s enough for about 2160 servings of apples!

We went along with Sarah to deliver 58 of these bags of apples to the Salvation Army in Lynchburg, VA, one of the few agencies that’s available to receive fresh produce on the weekend. The other 2 bags were destined for 2 local shelters.

Check out their website for information on other great programs run by the Society of St. Andrew, such as the Potato and Produce Project and Harvest of Hope.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Manna Meal – Feeding the Hungry in Charleston, WV

Manna Meal is the largest feeding program we’ve visited so far, and quite a program it is! It began in 1978 with a few people fed at a table in the kitchen of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, WV.

Today, Manna Meal serves breakfast to about 125 people and lunch to about 225 people 365 days a year.

We met all four full-time staff members. From right to left, they are Director Jean Simpson, Assistant Director Sandy Perrine, Outreach Coordinator Rhondell Miller, and Lead Cook Raj Pongsugree. They are assisted by 4 part-time staff and about 130 volunteers a week. Many of the volunteers have been coming at a regular time once a week for up to 20 years.

Running Manna Meal is not like catering meals for a large group. Here, only about ¼ of the food served is purchased (mostly funded by private donations). The remaining ¾ comes from donors such as grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, catered civic functions, the farmer’s market, individual people’s gardens, and Manna Meal’s own garden. Much of the donated food is dishes already prepared or items no longer salable in stores.

Each day’s menu is rapidly planned based on food that happens to come in. One day they might get a donation of several boxes of nearly over-ripe fruit, 40 dozen eggs, and 50 pizzas, so there will be fruit salad and pizza for lunch that day and scrambled eggs for breakfast the next day.  Still, guests are offered hearty, well-balanced meals.

On our day volunteering at Manna Meal, breakfast consisted of sausage patties, potatoes, muffins, bread, cereal, milk, bananas, and coffee. Lunch was pork tenderloin, bread, scalloped potatoes, tossed salad, baked apples with dried cherries, dessert (pastries, cookies, brownies), and beverage (orange juice, water, coffee).  

We helped serve breakfast and lunch, and in between we prepared salad for 200. The kitchen (due to be renovated this November) was a very busy place. While we were making salad, others were cleaning and cooking potatoes, checking on apples in the oven, slicing pork, filling orange juice glasses, cutting desserts, preparing the rolling carts used to deliver food to the dining room, and dealing with a pair of copier salespeople who’d come to try to donate a copier. The hubbub increased when the volunteer servers arrived, greeted everyone in the kitchen, found their aprons and sanitary gloves, and lined up to deliver the food carts.

Manna Meal seemed to us to be especially in tune with the needs of their patrons.
  • Everyone who comes is fed – there are no requirements to register or qualify, only to behave in a non-disruptive way.
  • Food prepared is tuned to the likes and needs of the patrons. For example, we were instructed to cut the salad into small pieces to make it easier to eat for those with dental problems. While Manna Meal can’t prepare multiple choices for one meal, they assist those with diabetes or other health conditions in choosing what to eat of the ample meal offered.
  • Anything Manna Meal can’t use is given away to patrons. In addition to bread and other fresh food, they give away clothing and other donated items.
  • Manna Meal coordinates with a huge number of other organizations in Charleston. One such organization is Covenant House, which provides services such as laundry, medical assistance, help with rent and utility payments, a food pantry located just a block away from Manna Meal, and vouchers for clothing, household goods, and furniture. We also heard about other churches’ dinner programs, men’s shelters, women’s shelters, and a veterans’ outreach program. Nurses and mental health workers come during lunch a couple of times a week to assist Manna Meal patrons. Occasionally, a transitional housing person comes, too. Some of this coordination occurs through Kanawha Valley Collective, a group of organizations focused on addressing social problems such as poverty and homelessness.
The patrons of Manna Meal fit all descriptions -- black, white, Hispanic, children to elderly, men and women, mobile to wheel-chair bound, homeless or housed, unemployed or employed or even full-time students. At any one meal, there are usually about 75% men and just a few children. Probably about half have mental health issues, some of which are only apparent over time. Many have substance abuse problems. Many are people trying to get back on their feet after being incarcerated or losing their housing. Some are there for most every meal, while others come only occasionally, or leave for an extended time and return years later. Many know each other well, greet others, and talk over their meal. Some come in their work clothes -- security workers, store employees, nurses’ aides, for example. These jobs just don’t pay well enough for them to pay their bills and eat, too. About half are probably getting SNAP benefits, but they aren’t enough to make it through the month.

As Assistant Director Sandy said, “People who come are stereotyped way too much. Many are working, doing what they can, and it’s just not enough.”  In Charleston, it's Manna Meal ensuring that the hungry can eat.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Feeding the Hungry in the Rain

It takes a dedicated team to brave all kinds of weather to feed the hungry. We were grateful to serve with such a group last Thursday, when the remnants of a hurricane were delivering rain to Wilmington, DE. A small team from Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Bear DE prepares soup and sandwiches, drives them to Wilmington, and feeds anyone who comes to Christina Park at 6 PM every Thursday evening. They started several years ago, when four men from Cornerstone hatched the idea over breakfast. They’ve been serving supper every week since, except once when the roads were shut down because of a snowstorm.

It’s a pretty simple operation. All it needs is a truck, some tables and chairs, a folding canopy, a few coolers (with sandwiches and cold water), bags of cookies, spoons, napkins, bowls, and a large propane burner and soup kettle. The team of about six volunteers usually sets up all the tables and chairs, and leads informal Bible study as people sit and enjoy their supper. Last week, because of the rain, they only set up a couple of serving tables under the canopy.

When we arrived a half-hour early, guests had already begun assembling in the park. By the end of the serving hour, about 25 people had been served. This was fewer than normal because it was early in the month (close to the time that SSI checks come in) and because many regular guests had already gone to the shelters, which had opened early to provide refuge from the storm. Most guests were men, but there were women, young children, and teenagers, too.

All of the guests appeared to need and be grateful for the food provided. Many appeared to be homeless, and some took extra food to share with those camped near them. Some of the guests have housing, but, as one guest told us, cannot pay the rent and utilities and still have enough money left to eat.

We were humbled by the grace and consistency with which this team served from their Thursday soup truck and the fact that they do far, far more than just offer soup and sandwiches to those in need. Once a month, they offer bags of toiletries. In the winter, they bring coats and hats. They get to know the folks who come, help with finding housing or other services, and freely offer prayer and good fellowship.

SNAP Education at the Food Bank of Delaware

Getting enough food is one thing; knowing how to use it to provide a healthy diet for yourself and your family is quite another. As the food bank says, “To stretch food dollars, SNAP participants often choose foods that are low-cost and calorie-dense with a lower nutrient content. Poor dietary choices lack variety and can lead to overweight/obesity.”

Beverly Jackey and Lisa Harkins, the two energetic and creative community nutritionists employed at the Food Bank of Delaware, help people make healthy food choices within their budgets, through a set of SNAP-Ed programs for adults and children. They run 12-15 classes per month, and reach well over 1,000 separate people in a year.

For example, Beverly (left) and Lisa developed a new Kid CHEF program using a grant from Walmart. Kid CHEF targets kids between 8 and 12 years old. One dietician teaches each class of up to 12 kids. Classes meet for 5 hour-long sessions, one to prepare an easy dish (e.g., veggie wraps, fruit smoothies) from each food group that make up the USDA’s My Pyramid for kids. Each kid receives a bag of kitchen tools(a chef’s hat and apron, a whisk, a wooden spoon, a rubber scraper, measuring cups and spoons, and a pot holder) to use for the class and to take home.

Adult classes are structured differently, with fewer, longer classes. The nutritionists bring everything they need with them, so they don’t even need a kitchen. Sometimes they can run hands-on classes, but other times they can only do demos because of class size or available space.

Both the adult SNAP-Ed classes and the Kid CHEF classes are very popular. Courses are often taught at agencies that are among the 440 food bank partners, places like boys and girls clubs, summer feeding programs, after school care programs, community centers, shelters, etc. But Beverly and Lisa teach classes anywhere, to almost any number of students. One time, they held a class in a mobile home, with 30-40 people in attendance!
The USDA provides great resources to support nutrition education. Check out to see materials such as posters, multimedia presentations, and interactive tools. The food bank uses these materials in their SNAP-Ed courses and also provides many of them as handouts for partner agencies to pick up when they come for food and distribute to their clients at pantries and shelters.

The USDA also supports SNAP-Ed through funds available to state university cooperative extension services. The Food Bank of Delaware subcontracts with the University of Delaware for half of the costs of providing their SNAP-Ed courses. In return, the SNAP-Ed courses must comply with USDA regulations, such as following the USDA dietary recommendations and ensuring that at least half the class participants are eligible for SNAP benefits.

Finally, in the center of the picture you’ll see a bag of groceries. It illustrates the groceries that the minimum SNAP benefit of $16 will buy. Meant to help convince SNAP-eligible people to apply for benefits when they think it’s too much trouble, it also shows how, with good choices, even $16 can help provide healthy meals for you and your family.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Market - a Program of the Food Bank of Delaware

What do you get when you put an innovative food bank together with the need for less expensive foods in a low-income "food desert?"  The answer is The Market!

As Ed Matarese, contact person for The Market, (and Facilities and Fleet Director, and our host at the Food Bank of Delaware) explained, The Market was originally colocated with the food bank's Newark facility.  But in that location, it was not serving its intended population.  Therefore, The Market was moved to a low-income community in Wilmington, where it is housed in the Catholic Charities Thrift Shop.

The Market is open a few hours a day, Tuesday-Friday. Its small room (perhaps 15 x 15 ft) contains items such as spaghetti sauce, pasta, canned vegetables, diapers, and household cleaning supplies, as well as a few refrigerated and frozen items such as ground beef and turkey, bacon, eggs and milk.  All items are bought at wholesale rates through the food bank and are sold at wholesale cost plus 10-15% to cover transportation costs.  Shoppers may use cash or their SNAP electronic benefit cards for food items.

JoAnne Hawkins, the principal volunteer, runs the store, handles sales, and keeps everything neat and clean.  The day we volunteered there, she put us to work cleaning shelves and dusting.  JoAnne keeps track of stock and when her supplies get low, orders more. Although the number of customers is not high, many of those who use The Market depend on it, as getting to the nearest full grocery store is difficult.

As with many hunger-related programs, JoAnne gives much more than food.  She knows many of her customers by name, understands their individual situations, and has an easy chair next to the desk for them to use if they want to chat.  As she listens to their situations, she may refer them to other agencies such as Kingswood Community Center, across the street, where they might get help with outstanding bills and other needs.

Plans are underway to add a similar market to the Milford branch of the Food Bank of Delaware as it expands to meet the needs of the southern counties.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Food Bank of Delaware

Delaware may be a small state, but food insecurity looms large. Last year, about 242,000 people, 44% of them children, received food from the Food Bank of Delaware. That’s well over ¼ of the state’s population.

It takes energy and imagination to meet that level of need, and we found it when we visited the Food Bank of Delaware and met President and CEO Patricia Beebe and her energetic staff of 37.  They run many programs and have even more new program ideas in the works. While not all ideas succeed, Pat and her staff seem to keep working at them until any impediments are overcome and the programs can go forward.

For example, Pat described an idea to put a food closet (what Delawareans call their food pantries) into each of the 18 State Service Centers, the offices where people go when they need help and financial benefits such as WIC, Medicaid, and mental health services. Why make people go to yet another location when they need food?  Pat persisted for years until a new Secretary of Health and Human Services was interested in the idea. Pat agreed to raise the money, buy any needed equipment, and train the volunteers to do it all. What could they say? Now food closets are in operation at all but 3 of the State Service Centers. Since opening in April, they’ve distributed about $60,000 worth of food.  (read more)

In addition to the two programs we’ve chosen to highlight in later postings (The Market and Nutrition Education), here’s a sampling of other programs we saw at the Food Bank of Delaware:
  • Distributing food to partner agencies. This is, of course, the main operational program of the food bank. Here, volunteers make it all happen. We met Volunteer Coordinator Jason Begany, who said that over 10,000 volunteers a year provide the equivalent labor of about 19 full-time staff members. He’s a master at motivating the volunteers, saying “This is your food bank” and incorporating their good ideas into making operations run more smoothly.

  • Children's Nutrition Programs. Up to 1,000 sandwiches a day are prepared by busy volunteers in the kitchen each morning and distributed to after-school programs and summer feeding programs.
  • The Culinary School. This program consists of 10 weeks of in-house training in cooking skills and life skills, plus a 2-week paid internship. We were privileged to attend the graduation of the 25th class of 8, and to interview Executive Chef Tim Hunter. Tim came to the Food Bank of Delaware 1½ years ago to teach in the Culinary School; he described the amazing transformation that the culinary school has had on the lives of many of its graduates.
  • Mobile food pantries.  A Food Bank truck delivers boxes of food to underserved areas.  Some mobile food pantry times and locations are scheduled ahead of time.  Others occur when there are perishable foods such as dairy products, fruits and vegetables, that need to quickly get to those who can use them; in these cases the truck might just arrive in a neighborhood and the food given to whoever comes.
And then, of course, there’s fund raising. We happened to be in Delaware at the time of this year’s “Blue Jean Ball” fund raiser, which had a 1960’s theme of “Love, Peace, End Hunger.” We helped decorate the warehouse on Friday and were graciously invited to join the fun on Saturday – and FUN it was. We sure hope lots of money was raised to support the vital programs of the Food Bank of Delaware.