Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Romence Road Food Pantry, Portage, Michigan

This is the oldest of the Loaves & Fishes food pantries; it has been in operation for 27 years.  The pantry is open a few hours a day 5 days a week, plus one evening, and is staffed by 96 volunteers.  The pantry distributes about a ton of food a week.  About 75% comes from Loaves & Fishes and the other 25% comes from local individual and church donations.  The pantry is encouraging donations of cash, because that is more flexible and can be used to purchase fresh items.
The day we visited, we helped stock shelves and subdivided a huge bag of gleaned bagels.  We also interviewed Alice Heun, Pantry Director, who told us some of the things that make this pantry special:
  • The pantry always has a good variety and choice of food and other items, due in part to the ample space to stock non-perishable items.
  • Individual churches donate special items such as jelly, pancake mix &syrup, feminine hygiene products, and diapers.  They also donate cash, which the pantry uses to purchase fresh items.
  • Each client shops with a laminated shopping list designed by a nutritionist for the size of family they're feeding. Categories on the shopping list correspond to color-coded shelves (i.e., green for fruits and vegetables, red for protein, yellow for grains and pasta, and blue for personal items).  This helps ensure that each client receives a fair share and a balanced selection of nutritious food.  Here's an example:
  • Children age 5 and under can choose a book to take home each month.  The books come from NY Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter's foundation, called Turn 2.  The goal of the Turn 2 Foundation is "To create and support signature programs and activities that motivate young people to turn away from drugs and alcohol and TURN2 healthy lifestyles."
  • The volunteers are always loving, cheerful, and respectful.  "Each client who comes through that door is Christ," she said.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes is a great example of an intermediate-level food bank.  Founded in 1982, it centralizes the resources and operations of 27 different food pantries in Kalamazoo and neighboring towns in Michigan. We visited on February 10, 2010, took the informative volunteer training with Seema Jolly, and observed their operations. 

Most of the food that Loaves and Fishes distributes to its member food pantries is purchased from the Food Bank of South Central Michigan, one of the 7 Michigan member food banks of Feeding America.  About 25% of the food that Loaves & Fishes distributes comes from donations and local food drives such as the letter carriers' food drive in May. 

Here are some of the things we found impressive:
  • Anyone in their service area who needs food assistance can call the "need food" line and speak with a volunteer who sets them up to visit one of the food banks, where they'll be given 4 days worth of food once a month.  If additional food assistance is needed during the same month, then an outside agency (such as a school) may request additional days of food support for them.  If a caller doesn't speak English, the call center can conference in a translation service to make sure the caller's needs are understood and met appropriately.
  • Loaves & Fishes takes education and advocacy very seriously.  They sponsor programs such as classes on how to stretch food dollars and cooking classes at Boys and Girls Clubs.  Also, to made it easier for people shopping at food pantries to prepare a nutritious meal, Loaves & Fishes sometimes offers bags that contain a recipe and all the ingredients necessary to create a simple dinner.  
  • During busy times of the month in 2009, the Loaves & Fishes pantries served over 800 people a day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Community gardens

Perhaps the heart of efforts to feed America's hungry are individuals working in small, local programs designed to help feed people in their own communities.  For example, Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church has a community garden on church property.  We interviewed Cara Weiler about how it works.  Here are a few things we learned:
  • The garden had about 25 plots in 2009.  Gardeners pay $25 for a plot about 12' x 20.' Scholarships are available to those who need it. Rototilling, water, and some shared tools are available.
  • All gardening is organic unless severe pest problems occur, in which case master gardeners in the congregation are available to help.
  • At the beginning of the season, there were educational events on things such as composting, as well as an 8-week Sunday school class on food justice and the needs for food assistance in Portage.
  • All gardeners donate a minimum of 30% of the produce they raise to the local  Loaves & Fishes Romence Road Food pantry, which has no other access to fresh produce.  In 2009, about 800 pounds of produce were donated.  Gardeners grew a huge variety of food from traditional cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, and pumpkins to more exotic choices such as African corn, heirloom tomatoes, rainbow chard, and purple potatoes.  
The garden met its goals of community building, introducing people to new types of foods, and contributing appreciated produce to the food pantry.  It has been perhaps less successful at encouraging food pantry clients to try a garden plot of their own.

UPDATE:  We stopped by the garden in late August and saw this exuberant growth of a wide variety of vegetables, from several varieties of tomatoes, beans, and squash, to these enormous sunflowers.  Looks like it has been a successful growing season.