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Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2017

Food Bank strives to avoid summer food drought

When Laura Kilpatrick started working at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank seven years ago, the recession was still gripping the nation and many of the agency’s clients had just lost their jobs.

Sometimes they drove up in luxury cars, dazed and embarrassed about their newfound poverty.

These days, Kilpatrick says, director of agency and government relations, which oversees the Food Bank’s programs, “We are seeing more people who are employed but are not making wages that are allowing them to make ends meet. So, we have college graduates that show up here needing food.”

Last winter, during a USDA-sponsored food pickup day, more than 700 families lined up on a 19-degree morning to pick up boxes of cheese, chicken and other items.

One man came to the Food Bank to get groceries for four relatives – two widowed, two in wheelchairs – but not for himself. While talking to Gina Crumbliss, Food Bank president and CEO, he revealed that he’d been laid off from a $62,000-a-year job and was now making only $20,000.

Seniors are also struggling and showing up more at the Food Bank’s mobile pantries, which operate much like farmers’ markets on wheels, Kilpatrick says. “They’re taking care of their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, and they’re having to cover the cost of care with their social security checks, which are around $735 a month.”

In summer, at the same time Food Bank donations plummet, the need often spikes, especially for low-income families who depend on subsidized school lunches to feed their children through the week. On the flip side, regular donors are spending time with their own kids, taking vacations and putting their non-profit volunteer work and donations on hold.

“Hunger doesn’t occur just two months out of the year,” adds Kilpatrick, referring to the fact that donations skyrocket around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It is always at our back door, and we always have to be able to provide for those that are coming to us. Donations get slim in terms of food drive products, and also financial donations, during the summer months. But the overarching thing to remember is that hunger does not have a timeline.”

To address the summertime shortage, the Food Bank tries to step up efforts to provide mobile and other feeding programs, not just for children, but also for entire families, through its 300 partner organizations, such as the YMCA in Hamilton County, Meigs County Ministries, and Family Connection in Fannin County, Georgia.

“Our agency partners have stepped up to the plate to really start meeting these goals,” Kilpatrick says. “They are the hands in the inner communities. They have really challenged themselves to work more.”

The Food Bank has also greatly increased its distribution of fresh produce sourced from local farmers. Other commercial farmers donate blemished veggies and fruits through a partnership with Feeding America, a national resource for food banks across the country, with the Chattanooga agency paying a “pack-in, pack-out” fee to cover the cost of handling.

Seven years ago, Kilpatrick notes, the Food Bank was handing out approximately 100,000 pounds of vegetables and fruits annually; in 2016, that number reached more than 4 million.

Thanks to a 2013 rewrite of the Food Bank’s mission statement, there is also a much stronger focus on healthy foods and balanced meals. Emergency food boxes are prepared with USDA MyPlate guidelines in mind.

“We’re not just here to feed people pounds or calories,” Kilpatrick notes. “We’re trying to increase the nutritional value of what our clients are eating.”

As for donations, says Crumbliss, “It sounds crass, but we prefer to get the money. We can take that dollar and stretch it so much further because we can leverage our buying power.

“Some people use [organized food drives] as an opportunity to clean out their cupboard or get rid of things they don’t like or don’t want, and we’ll get some random stuff,” she says, noting that if public donations suddenly stopped, the warehouse shelves would be empty in three weeks.

“But we are very intentional in the food that we give out. We want to make sure people can cook and serve a well-balanced, nutritious meal, so we don’t want margarita mix. Think in terms of dried beans, dried rice, and canned meats. Those are luxuries for us.”

No matter the season, Kilpatrick says, “We’re filling an immediate need, so it’s very easy to connect to. Everybody has to eat. It has just been amazing, the outpouring from the community and the support from staff and our agency partners. We’ve made really awesome strides since I’ve been here.”