A look at food donations from the ground level
Arlington Memorial Baptist Church recently gave away 18,000 pounds of food to residents in need, thanks to a donation given by the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
Every week, the Foodbank donates food to this church, as well as to many other agency members across the county. Mary Coppenger, 72, and her husband Jack, 75, have been giving out food at Arlington Baptist for four years now.
The happily married couple of 50 years arrives at the church at 5 a.m. every Tuesday morning to set up, staying until 1:30 p.m. "When we first started there was only about 15 people coming. We'd sit here, read the paper and have coffee," Mary said of their beginnings.
Now they average 100 to 150 people each time.
"We're seeing so many new people. Some have filed in today, they lost their job – just overnight – no job," Mary said.
Recipients of the food ranged from young children to middle-school-aged students with their parents, to the elderly. "This is such a blessing. I don't feel embarrassed or ashamed to walk through the door and ask for their help. They are good people here," said Marilyn, a divorced mother of three. "I was a straight-A student from Springfield and had a lot of things going for me." But things took a downward spiral after the birth of her first child when she was 17.
Following a traumatizing incident, divorce and a husband who stopped paying child support, she found herself in great need. "It helps you get through," she said, explaining that food stamps are not enough.
Volunteers pack a cart full of food items including fresh fruits and vegetables, pizza and cereal, which makes it easy and convenient.
"I don't always have a vehicle that I can borrow to come get the food. I'm time limited, and they have it all put together for you," Marilyn said.
Jeff Wilson, a father of three, came to the church for food for the first time recently, due to a layoff. "I don't have any money," he said, with two tiny children barely tall enough to see past the table standing next to him. "It feels good that someone's helping you and you know there are people out there that do care about you," Wilson said.
Shelly Connor, a volunteer, brought her daughter, about 4 years old, and baby. "We like to involve our families and kids," she said, as her daughter ran back and forth.
Mary Eblen, another volunteer, said she was inspired to give back because the issue of hunger hit close to home for her. "Years ago, before I started volunteering, my oldest son needed some food and I was not able to keep buying for him, so I came over and after that, started volunteering. It's just something I enjoy doing. It makes you feel good," Eblen said.
Laurie Snyder, another volunteer, said, "We have a lot more food than we ever used to," since her start in 2003.
"It gives you a good feeling to know you're helping these people. It has to be terrible to sit on the other side of this table," Mary Coppenger said, looking out into the crowd of individuals and families waiting for their cart of food.
"If not for the grace of God, we might all be there. So we enjoy what we're doing," she continued.
Foodbank's goals for 2012
"In 2012 we are taking on a very ambitious goal to distribute over a million more pounds of fresh and perishable produce to people in need. So we're really excited about that," said Dan Flowers, president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
"We have some top-line strategic objectives that I'm really looking forward to working on with our Board of Directors," Flowers said. The Foodbank's No. 1 goal is to increase the availability of fresh produce.
The organization's national network, Feeding America, has made a commitment to try to source and distribute a billion more pounds of fresh produce around the country over the next five years. This means the Foodbank has the potential of increasing its fresh produce by 5 million pounds in the next five years.
"We're also looking to invest in our food procurement team and hire another person to help us get more surplus food," Flowers said. "I'm convinced that there's a lot of food in the eight-county region that we serve that we still can't find. We can bring that here and distribute it to people in need -- good, healthy, wholesome food that we can find a home and use for."
One thing that's for sure is that the Foodbank isn't stagnant. The nonprofit is always coming up with fresh, new ideas and ways to improve what it does to reach the population in the best way possible.
Last year brought its latest addition -- a food demonstration and preparation kitchen. They are now in the process of initiating the program.
This is helpful because every member of all 450 charities that benefit from the Foodbank are required to have Serve-Safe Certification. "Volunteers go through this so they can be mindful of food safety and proper food handling. We really strive to have a culture of food safety, not just at our Foodbank, but at all of our charities that partner or receive food from our Foodbank," Flowers explained.
The kitchen enables the Foodbank to provide all of the training in-house. Foodbank reps plan to work with local agencies, teaching them about nutrition and food preparation in the future.
"Oftentimes we get food donations here that are maybe a bit more obscure, products that people might not be used to handling. So we'll have the resource now to teach agencies and show their clients how to cook those products. A lot of people that come to food pantries don't know how to cook with ingredients," Flowers shared.
"A lot of issues with obesity in populations that are in poverty are related to deserts. There's a lack of access to food that is nutritional and wholesome for them, a lack of ability to prepare food and a lack of knowledge in those areas. So we are really undertaking those initiatives too, in partnership with agencies who can deliver those services," Flowers continued.
A dollar makes a difference
Every dollar donated to the Foodbank gives the organization the opportunity to bring more products in, allowing it to take advantage of large surpluses in the grocery industry at a very low cost. For roughly $5 million, the Foodbank can put $20 million worth of food on the plates of people in need across the eight counties in Northeast Ohio.
Every year the Foodbank has more than 2,000 volunteers come in to help sort that food. "I want to encourage anyone to visit our website. Find all the ways that you can get involved," Flowers said.
"I think we've built a great organization here that serves a lot of people. And I think that everyone who gets involved in this place gets served by it -- the volunteers, board, staff…because when you get a chance to engage in an activity that's bigger than you that helps people, then you're really the one who's benefiting," he added. "I'm excited about 2012. We have a great team, a very healthy food bank and the community has been very generous."