Free food just got fresher
Central Illinois Food Bank tackles hunger with healthier food
From floor to ceiling, the Central Illinois Food Bank’s 25,000-square-foot warehouse on the east side of Springfield is packed with donations, ranging from traditional items like juice boxes, cereal and canned goods to the more unusual – chili-flavored lollipops, strawberry corn starch and potato chips made to taste like ketchup. In six weeks, new inventory will have completely replaced the old, as the food bank will have distributed the 700,000 pounds it now has on hand to food pantries, soup kitchens and other nonprofit hunger relief organizations.
Central Illinois Food Bank plans to distribute six million pounds of food this year, up from the 4.7 million pounds distributed in 2009. Its distribution is wide: 170 hunger relief programs in 21 counties. One of eight food banks in the state, Central Illinois Food Bank has seen about a 20 percent increase in individuals seeking food assistance in the last year, says Kristy Gilmore, manager of agency and food resources. It’s no surprise to anyone that the current economic climate has more and more families heading for their local food pantry. Feeding Illinois reports a 50 percent increase in requests for food assistance over the past two years. What is surprising, however, is that the Springfield-based food bank has seen an unexpected and unprecedented increase in donations of fresh food and produce, Gilmore says.
“Food banking is changing at a relatively rapid pace,” she says. “When you go into the grocery store you see more and more frozen foods, you see more and more fresh products, more and more cooler products.”
As the organic food movement gathers momentum, national attention has focused on not just the quantity but the quality of “free” food, such as the meals provided by food pantries, soup kitchens and school lunch programs. First lady Michelle Obama’s recent “Let’s Move!” initiative to end childhood obesity and British chef Jamie Oliver’s documentary television series, “Food Revolution” (where Oliver attempts to change the quality of food served at a West Virginia elementary school) exemplify this trend. Advocates stress the importance of quality nutrition as prevention for obesity, diabetes and other health issues, particularly in the food and meals served to low-income children.
For food banks, the move toward local, whole and organic foods is a mixed blessing. While places like Central Illinois Food Bank are built to store hundreds of thousands of pounds of food, they are not equipped with proper freezers or refrigeration systems, Gilmore says.
“Food banking used to be strictly dry products, where you didn’t have to worry too much about needing a refrigerator or a freezer,” Gilmore says. “But we’re getting more and more products that are frozen or require refrigeration.”
Gilmore started to notice a slow change in products five years ago, but the biggest change has happened in the last year and a half, she says.
“The organic food movement has had a big impact on our donations,” she says. “And we’re trying very diligently to provide the more nutritious products. We think it’s really important to provide food that’s good for people’s health.”
Temperature-sensitive produce, milk and meat must be properly stored, Gilmore says. Five of Central Illinois Food Bank’s employees are trained in food safety, and the warehouse hasn’t had a food-related illness in 28 years. Despite the six-week turnaround, the food bank still has trouble finding room for the additional frozen or refrigerated items.
“Our freezer is full,” Gilmore says. “Even though we do turn it at a relatively rapid pace, we have to be about three steps ahead of the game. So I’m thinking about what’s in the freezer now, but I’ve got to be planning for what’s going to be there in a month.”
Some items will be claimed by nonprofit groups in as little as two hours, like the shipment of 43,000 eggs that came two weeks ago from Rockford-based Pearl Valley Eggs. While Gilmore originally estimated all eggs would be spoken for in three days, they were gone by 4 p.m. after the 2 p.m. delivery. Other items are not so easy to distribute, she says, like the semi-truck loads of frozen yucca the food bank received. The food bank ended up giving the yucca, a starchy vegetable similar to a potato, to sister agencies in Chicago.
The temporary solution to the refrigeration problem is a semitrailer with a built-in freezer parked outside the warehouse. The unit runs all the time, keeping the overflow products cold. Gilmore estimates that the trailer contains about 14 pallets, which are the five-foot cubes on which all products are stacked. Pallets can weigh anywhere from 500 pounds for boxes of cereal to 2,000 pounds for individual cartons of juice.
Central Illinois Food Bank started using the semitrailer last June, when the warehouse freezer’s ceiling collapsed due to age. After the ceiling was fixed, the trailer was returned. However, the food bank rented the trailer again in early March, and will continue to use it until the end of April.
Many nonprofit organizations that use the food bank are not equipped to handle the increase in frozen or refrigerated foods, Gilmore explains. Agencies may pick up from the food bank as often as they like, and no money is exchanged for the goods themselves.
“Our agencies are so used to their main focus being dry product, and the change has affected them as well,” she says. “They don’t have the refrigeration and freezer space they need. Most of their facilities are aging as well. You have an electrical component to consider, too. Someone might donate an additional freezer, but the facility’s electrical system might not support it.”
Most of the agencies Central Illinois Food Bank serves are located in church basements, shelters or rooms at social service organizations. According to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks across the country, food banks are the single most important source of food for these agencies, accounting for more than half of what’s distributed by pantries, kitchens and shelters.
In fiscal year 2010, Illinois spent less than $300,000 in state funds on hunger relief, according to Feeding Illinois, less than a fraction of a percent of the state’s spending. To meet the increased need for food, food banks will need an estimated 27 million additional pounds of food for fiscal year 2011. In March, Feeding Illinois asked the state to provide an additional $5 million to pay for food alone.
Funding comes from three sources, says Pam Molitoris, executive director of the Central Illinois Food Bank. Money comes from public support, which is initiated through direct mail campaigns, special events and the United Way. It also comes from government funds like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, which covers a fair amount of the distribution costs. Also, funds come from “shared contributions and maintenance,” a term for the what agencies pay the food bank for shipping and handling. Agencies don’t have to pay for produce in the summer, when it’s plentiful, but they can pay as much as 18 cents per pound for meat and other temperature-sensitive products.
Central Illinois Food Bank attempts to reduce its costs in a number of ways. First, no actual money is involved in procuring the food. When the food bank requests items from parent organization Feeding America’s national database, it’s on a “first come, first served” basis, though factors like population, poverty rate and unemployment are considered if food banks are vying for popular items.
The food bank must pay contracted trucking companies to deliver the food, but they try to take advantage of special deals. If a truck is delivering inventory to Chicago, for example, Gilmore and her organization will sign up for a “back haul,” meaning the truck would bring food on its return trip. “Back hauls” cost less, since the trucks are already making the trip, she says. The food bank also uses “Haulin’ for Humanity,” a Chicago-based trucking company specifically for charities. It charges only transportation costs like gas.
The organization has also started to use its trucking more efficiently, contacting agencies when they know a product will be coming in. They’ve met in Wal-Mart parking lots, dropping off eggs to agency representatives, who will then take them to their offices.
“It’s almost a case of having to play catch-up,” Molitoris explains. “We’ve got the product, but what do we do with it?”
Molitoris says her group may try sharing regions with one of the seven other food banks. Since Central Illinois Food Bank covers so many counties, it may wind up asking another food bank to deliver to a closer agency, even if it’s not under their official jurisdiction. This would get produce to people sooner, reducing its chances of spoiling, she says.
“When you’re looking at truly perishable product, everything changes,” she says.
The organizations served by the food bank face a number of challenges besides refrigeration, Molitoris says. Because the area her organization serves is so large (at 12,300 square miles), the food bank can’t reach all its agencies as often as it would like. Currently, the organization delivers to 40 percent of its agencies, in places more than 100 miles away like Quincy, Mt. Vernon and as close as Christian County, 26 miles away.
“Springfield is a pretty easy community to serve if you have the food,” Molitoris explains. “Local pantries come in, they pick up the food, they drive to the agencies and get the food out. But many of our other pantries are much farther away. We have pantries that are 150 miles away. We deliver to them, but it’s only once or twice a month. It’s a challenge.”
A larger challenge, Molitoris says, is for the people accessing food.
“We have counties in our area where people are driving 25-30 miles to get to a pantry,” she says. “Imagine, if you’re having a hard time putting food on the table, you’re having trouble making ends meet, and you have to face the choice of ‘how am I going to pay for the gas to get rid of the pantry?’”
As the number of hungry people in Illinois continues to rise, this problem will become even worse. Molitoris and Gilmore say they’ve been working with rural agencies, in places like Adams County, trying to start new programs, but they’re still in the early planning stages.
Though the storage issues aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon, Gilmore says she’s happy that food banks are receiving the new products, even if it does mean semitrailer freezer systems.
“It’s really nutritious product, and we want to distribute it, but it’s definitely changing our storage needs,” she says. “With regards to nutrition, we’re definitely in a better spot than we were five years ago.”
Contact Diane Ivey at email@example.com.
Food banks benefit from manufacturing mishaps
In its food donations, Central Illinois Food Bank often receives products that can’t be sold by manufacturers. A change in packaging design, a label misprint or a failed test product is more than likely to end up on the food bank’s shelves. Last week, the food bank received 25,000 unlabeled cans of corn. They receive unlabeled products when manufacturers notice a labeling error, or when there’s a change in packaging that’s announced after the canning is started. While some might marvel at the amount of product commercial food producers deem unworthy, Gilmore says it’s actually a positive outcome for food banks everywhere.
“Food banking wouldn’t exist without these products,” she says. “It’s a nice outlet when the product is still intact. It’s not going to the landfill, it’s doing something good.”
Volunteers have been helping label the cans. Silke Bell, a board member of Asbury Children’s Supper Hour, which provides meals and activities for children at Springfield’s Asbury United Methodist Church, says she volunteered to help label some of the cans as a way to give back to the community.